Who are you? (No, really)

“We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Choke

The road to self discovery is long no matter what age. And no matter what anyone tells you, it’s seldom easy. Landmines of self-sabotage in the face of normalcy tend to go off just as we start to believe we are finally at a place of having our shit together. Something always trips us; and it’s usually us.

But the harder we fall the more we grow. And as our love affair with ourself evolves, caring about others’ perception of us falls by the wayside into the abyss of It’s None Of My Business. Whether someone tells you to your face, texts or emails you a colorful yarn of who [they think] you are, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that does is what we think of us.

It’s an excellent mantra: What other people think of me is none of my business. But what do we think about who we are? Do we know  – really?

Part of being younger is feeling out theories and testing the waters in our own life rafts. We choose partners who are wrong for us – falling in love with love, swearing that it’s the real deal. We don’t listen to the universe with her many obvious warning signs. We instead project our fears on to others, instead of focusing on why we make the choices we do. It’s all a tightrope of very personal whys; a delicate balance that leads us to knowing our true self with each tumble and rise.

Whenever I’m tested from outside distractions on my road to self awareness and love, I’m always reminded of the final scene in HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Has it really been over a decade – twelve years to be exact – since we said goodbye to our favorite dysfunctional family? Long before Michael C. Hall mastered the art of vigilante murder as Dexter and Peter Krause’s Adam Braverman taught us how to be better fathers in Parenthood, creator and producer Alan Ball kept us enthralled with the Fisher family.

With so much on-line video streaming at the ready these days, my painting a picture of Six Feet Under for those who’ve not experienced the ride wouldn’t serve Alan’s vision as well as buckling in for yourself would. Just know that the same mastermind who delivered American Beauty and True Blood does not disappoint with this unique dramedy about life and death, love and longing and deep insight born from sorrow and struggle. Its flavors are unique with a side of dark humor wrapped with cynicism and sprinkled with hope – just when you thought life was doomed to fail. To some, Six  was an acquired taste while others wanted to lick the spoon as the ending credits ran every week – pondering and personalizing life lessons and deep meaning behind the minutia of every day life.

As a woman in her mid-thirties when the series wrapped, I found myself captivated by the final scene more than any other in the show’s five-year run. The youngest sibling Claire, artist and dreamer, drives to her new life away from California to uncharted waters in The Big Apple. I’m always instantly connected to my younger self and how hard it was to leave my old Rock Star Life behind in my twenties whenever I revisit the this scene. Without saying a word, actress (who plays Claire) Lauren Ambrose nails it; that feeling of being lost and excited, afraid but eager.

Sometimes no words are needed.

Whether you’ve seen Six or not, the message is universal. Anything that inspires us to dig deep into learning about who we are is a gift.  Even those long emails and texts from people claiming to know us is a gift. No matter how wrong they are, they help us realize how far we’ve come and remind us that everyone has their own road and some of us may have farther to go before arriving at their own place of self certainty.

Once we learn how to stay in our own lane and balance personal longing with fear, a new kind of growth happens. No longer are we so focused on others’ stories and how they affect our own. There’s a certain freedom in lifting the veil of worry about what others think. Evolving means making it more about us; who we are, what we want, and how we can serve our happiness.

And when we get to a place of comfort and healing something magical happens. We live from our raw truth, and this energy is echoed into those around us. True happiness attracts the same. Just as toxic people can bring you down, surrounding yourself with like-minded people who are in a place of self awareness and honest insight does wonders for our own path to fulfillment.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen the final scene in Six Feet Under, it never fails. The combination of Claire’s face saying nothing and everything, my personal connection with starting a new life after stripping, and hearing Sia’s hauntingly poetic tune, Breathe Me makes me lose my shit. Not that this is a bad thing. There’s no better way to find yourself than in the throes of remembering how far you’ve come.

 

Final Scene in HBO’s Six Feet Under:

Christine Macdonald

I used to be hot: an ex-stripper appreciates her body (then and now).

 

The dressing room walls were vibrating with each thump of the baseline. After a quick garter and lipstick check in the mirror I pulled open the door and headed for the stage. As my eyes adjusted to the smoky darkness, my brain played catch-up to the sudden shift in volume while I sauntered past the customers. The audience would never know I wasn’t down with the DJ’s song choice because like every good sales pro, I worked the problem.

Trotting up the four steps to the stage, I navigated my six-inch stilettos onto the neon flashing Plexiglas. My hips curved around each thumping beat, and my smile served as a beautiful mask of my internal disdain. I was not a fan of 80s rap group 2 Live Crew, but no one would ever know. After the performance I gave, the crowd really did think: me so horny; me love you long time.

Stripping is the ultimate sales job.

“God, you’re such a bitch – you have zero cellulite.” Shayla whined as she spanked my ass at the bar. “Great set, doll.” She sized my body with her Cheshire gaze. “I hate you.” Her smile was wickedly salacious.

“What?” I laughed off Shayla’s digs in-between deep breaths, still recovering from my Oscar winning performance. I played along, pretending to understand. “Oh right, thanks!”

Strippers are sorority sisters without midterms. Instead of libraries and lecture halls, our campuses are cigarette smoke-filled bars with 2 for 1 shot nights, yoked-up bouncers and horny DJs with drug connections. But no matter the layout, we have each other’s backs – and never miss a chance to throw out a good dig in the name of envy. Shayla was in her late twenties and carried faint traces of cellulite around her hips, but to me – she was a Godddess.

Later that night and alone in my apartment, I broke out my mental measuring tape. I inspected each body part standing naked in front of the mirror. It was true. Unlike my face, my 22-year-old body was casualty-free; spared from the damage of the rare blood disease I was born with, leaving my face covered in deep-seeded crater-like acne scars. My stomach was toned and flat, my B cups were perky and my backside was solid and plump. I knew my body was ‘stripper worthy’, so why didn’t I feel beautiful? On the heels of being labeled Freddy Kruger in high school because of my scarred face, being envied was foreign to me. Anyone looking at me through a complimentary lens immediately tossed me in a sea of uncharted territory. I was desperate to catch Shayla’s life raft that night in the club, but there were too many leaks in my self-esteem to believe I could.

When you’re young and peppered with wisdom from anyone older, it serves up nothing but reminders that we still have time. The delicious irony is that nobody in their twenties truly understands the concept of youth being on our side until it’s gone.

It’s been twenty-five years since receiving Shayla’s cellulite-free comment, but far less time since I truly appreciated it. In the blink of an eye, my rock star life style of the rich and famous lost and shameless morphed into middle-aged responsibilities of the tired and gracious. Gone are the days of peeling off my day-glow lingerie for dollar bills and using my body as the ultimate entertainment sales tool. I can barely remember being cellulite-free and my fleshy stomach these days – it’s so lovely, it could give Buddha a run for his Rupee. But I’m happy. I feel beautiful.

The road to self-acceptance for everyone is as unique are their story. Paved with personal landmines and life rafts, it’s a wonder any of us make it through. My body has carried me, as I have her. We’ve made the trek to the other side of Victim; through childhood abuse, young adult disrespect and most recently, the Universe’s health tests. My body and me are still here. Bruised and scarred, tired yet strong. Weathered and full of stories. We are each other’s hero.

 

Christine Macdonald

Like a Stone: A 90s Party Girl’s Thoughts On Chris Cornell

My wheels crawled along the asphalt and I breathed in the afternoon sky. Brushstrokes of cotton candy melting with fireside abstracts served my daily commute home from work well. How could I possibly mind rush hour when my drive literally reminds me to appreciate the view? Time pushed as traffic crept along the California coastline and so did I. My thoughts swirled around nothing and everything as my eyes took deliberate turns between sky and road. The volume on my radio was low enough to faint the car commercials but still present enough to tap my ear when I landed on a tune I liked.

Enter Chris Cornell. And just like that. My sunset had a soundtrack.

As soon as I heard those pipes the fact that I couldn’t peg which song he was singing (a rarity) didn’t matter. His voice is undeniable; uncompromised passion with a bellowing tone that weaved through the speakers straight into your blood. I was only a few seconds in when it hit me – I had no idea what song this was.

As a retired party girl who made her living on the stripper stage in the 90s, I take great pride in being ‘in the know’ with musicians from back in my day. I worked the clubs in Waikiki from Milli Vanilli and Terence Trendy D’arby to Mötley Crüe and Fatboy Slim. Now decades later I can still tell you, with each song I hear – where I was working, what beaded leather or fluorescent lace costume I wore and which drug dealer had the best coke. Knowing his voice but not recognizing which song was more than annoying – it was a treat. I turned up the volume and without warning his lyrics pulled me inside a part of myself I was not expecting to revisit on a random afternoon drive home  from the office.

“And I sat in regret
Of all the things I’ve done
For all that I’ve blessed
And all that I’ve wronged
In dreams until my death
I will wander on”

I could blame the sudden tickle in my nose and watery eyes on PMS or low blood sugar, but the fact is – Chris Cornell was more than his voice – he was a rock and roll poet.

My introduction to Audioslave and their new tune Like a Stone reignited something in me that’s difficult to describe. My pole dancing days far behind me, I wrestled with feelings of anxiety remembering who I was then compared to the woman I’ve become. There I was, driving home from my corporate job in an upper class, conservative town and a song I fell in love with became a magic carpet ride to my past. With each note and lyric, I danced through a wormhole to a time when I was old enough to be on my own and make reckless choices, yet young enough to find my way out.

It seemed Chris Cornell and me both found our way out. He too, was a survivor of the party scene in the 90s. I didn’t follow his personal life, and to be honest wasn’t aware that he was back on the charts fronting his new band at the time, Audioslave. But like a long lost sister who powered through Aquanet hairspray and faded jeans torn at the knee, I was proud we were both doing well in our new lives.

It’s been a few weeks since learning of Cornell’s death. Like millions of us who knew him only through the lens of celebrity, the feelings of loss was (and still is) real. Since I posted my thoughts on this horrifying news on Facebook, my wall has been decorated with stories from fellow stripper sisters about when he serenaded us on stage through the speakers. And as one of my friends shared – he and his band mates cooked for her and her pals at her house – before she even realized they were members of Soundgarden.

Then there is the why. Headlines continued to dominate the internet just hours after the news: Dead at 52. Fifty fucking two. Just four years older than me, I couldn’t help but think the unthinkable. But it was true. Cornell couldn’t find his way out of whatever darkness he was living – and he decided to end his life.

As someone who has struggled with depression for years I can’t say I didn’t get it in some fucked up and completely inappropriate way. I don’t condone what he did. I hate what he did. But I hate the fact that I can relate to it even more.

To describe feelings of wanting to end it all to anyone outside the circle of mentally ill is like having a conversation with your dog. The words are real, and your faces connect but neither of you will ever truly understand what the other is saying. Our loved ones try to understand. They read up on the signs, speak to professionals who describe how depression is a disease that can be treated in ways, but is always white noise in our brains.

So many of us are hurting with the news of Chris Cornell. And there are countless humans away from the spotlight who suffer the same blows. Families buckle under the weight of such news that no doubt, the thought of following suit by taking their own life must enter into the realm of solution. But there is always another way.

If learning this type of news of someone we love (celebrity or otherwise) teaches us anything, it’s that the human heart can endure. All we need to do is hang on to the belief that the darkness won’t always be so. Remedies are all around us. Through the skin in holding your child’s hand, a shared smile with your lover, spontaneous laughter with a friend. All lovely anecdotes for sorrow. But if you’re like millions of us who need a little extra help in the depression section – it helps to play some of your favorite music. Thank you Chris, for giving us so much of yours.

Christine Macdonald