At 18, living alone in a new city, there was a day I decided to wear only red.
The color would be my brand, my hallmark, my calling card. In a strange new place, where I was as of yet anonymous, I could choose to become anyone, anything. I chose red.
I visited dozens of thrift stores in downtown Portland, and headed straight to the ever-present swath of scarlet shirts, buying three or four at a time.
I threw out the rest of my wardrobe, the mosses, the browns, the khakis, muted fat girl camouflage, and transformed myself over the course of a few months into a fierce woman of fire. The rich, rebellious hue inspired further wardrobe changes I had never considered. I bought tiny little black skirts to wear with all those vivid blouses. I splurged on stripper shoes, thigh-high, lace-up cherry colored boots with four inch heels, elevating me to an imposing 6’2″. I wore chunky silver rings on every finger, pierced my nose and tongue and labret and sported ruby studs like wounds, carried a lunchbox full of pop-rocks and condoms as a purse, and died my hair as crimson as my wardrobe. Even my lipstick was the color of blood, a violent slash in my pale face.
Red was more than just my favorite color. The symbolism of my choice did not escape me. The fury which had been simmering up in me for my entire childhood had spilled forth, a ruddy wave, and became the force that ruled me. I scrawled the title “Red” across candy apple notebooks that I filled with poems thick with ire and bitterness, shock value and dark imagery. My heart is a crimson blossom with a black rotting core, I wrote.
I would be seen, and, loved or hated, my very presence would demand notice.
It worked. I was an easily recognized figure in the motley sub-culture of downtown Portland. I was known. To my face, they called me Red, behind my back they whispered Big Red.
My rebellion stretched far beyond my wardrobe choices. Like a moth throwing itself into a flame, I became hell-bent on destroying myself. I pursued beautiful men with ferocity, using all my charms to win their affection, then turned around and slept with their best friends. I was only, I justified, evening the score. Men had been doing the same to women for how many years? Rarely sober, I dabbled in every substance I was offered. I smoked two packs of Kools a day, dropped acid and smoked hashish. Without a bowl or two of weed a night, sleep eluded me. I became entranced with a beautiful culinary school classmate, a soulful little stripper with big doe eyes and a crystal methamphetamine habit, and invited her to move into my studio apartment. Soon, I frequently didn’t sleep at all, as I turned more and more frequently to smoking meth. Meth turned me into super woman- it raged hot through my veins, revved up my heart-rate, and perfectly fueled my fire. It gave me all the courage I needed to tag along with my roommate one day to work and audition. There was already another dancer with the name Red, still another was Scarlet, and a third, Fyre; so I chose “Flame” as my stage name. Suddenly, I was one of those women who got off work under the sullen glare of dirty street lights, all smeared mascara and purse brimming over with grimy one dollar bills.
For a few weeks, I lived a double life. We’d roll back to the apartment in the witching hour, and I’d wipe off all that makeup, don my white uniform, take a few hits, then show up fresh faced at 6 am to work the morning shift at the bakery.
That was, until I began to get ill. Constantly queasy and given to bouts of vomiting, the last thing I felt like doing was strutting around in my underwear and I begged out sick for one night sift, then another and a third. After that, they stopped calling and asking for Flame. A few days later, I felt almost normal again and, after getting high, I decided to accompany my roommate to work, just to sit at a table and observe. I still didn’t feel up to working the stage. She drove, and on a whim, I asked her to stop at a drugstore. I ducked in and came out with a brown paper bag. I carried the little package with me into the club, and from there into the dimly lit women’s bathroom. There, behind a graffiti covered metal door that wouldn’t properly latch, I pulled a pregnancy test from that brown bag, and followed the enclosed instructions. It was a different woman who emerged from that restroom twenty minutes later, red striped wand clutched in my hand.
I was a 19 year-old, pregnant stripper with a meth habit. What had happened to me over the course of a year?
Oddly enough, the thought of an abortion never crossed my wild little mind. Instead, I began to make changes. I was going to be a mother, and mothers don’t smoke meth. That day, the day I discovered I was pregnant, became the last day I ever used crystal methamphetamine and ushered in a season of lasts. I stopped sleeping around. Mothers don’t keep a string of men with no last names. The longer I lay in bed, ill with almost constant morning sickness, the more the partiers I had known faded out of my life; the dealers, the sugar-daddy wanna-be’s, the jonesing junkies, and the hard-faced women stopped showing up, one by one. For a while, my roommate continued to bring little knots of furtive party-hopefuls around. Smoking bowls and telling muffled nightlife stories, they mostly ignored me, huddled naked in bed, fitfully sleeping and moaning queasily. Eventually, she even stopped coming home; I never knew where she was staying. One day late in my pregnancy, she showed up again unexpectedly. But this was no reunion party; she entered with her ultra-conservative Christian parents, who took one look at me heaped on a mattress on the floor, like an island in the sea of filth that had been our studio apartment, and started muttering in disgust. They were there to rescue her and take her home and left a wide berth around me as they gathered her things into hastily taped cardboard boxes.
With just weeks left before I would deliver, I abandoned that cockroach infested apartment with its dark memories and moved 8 blocks away to a larger place with French doors that let in the sunshine. The last thing I gave up was weed; my constant pregnancy companion and, as I justified it, “all natural” vice; the one thing that enabled me to eat during 9 long months of crippling morning sickness. As my sister drove me to the hospital at sunset on October 24th, 1999, I smoked bowl after bowl to blunt my anxiety. My petocin drip started at 6 am on the 25th, and by mid-afternoon I held my daughter in my arms. I had only just named her Kaya, after the Bob Marley song about marijuana, when the nurses came in to warn me. At some point in the night, they had drug-tested my urine (of course they had, given my history, why didn’t I expect that?) and it had come up positive for marijuana. Now they were bagging my baby’s first urine sample. If it too came back positive, they cautioned, CPS would be called and I would lose my child.
To this day, I still don’t know why Kaya’s urine test was negative. It makes no sense. I smoked every day of my pregnancy; often as much as an 8th an ounce a day. Faulty product? Nurse error? The pure grace of a God I did not yet know?
For whatever reason, it did. I walked out of the hospital the evening of the 26th truly clear-headed for what was the first time in years. I held a child named after a drug in my arms, but had been scared sober. I traded kaya for my Kaya, and I did not look back.
With all I gave up though, I never let go of my rage. I may have crammed it back down, put in on a back-burner of my mind on simmer, piled good intentions for my child on top of it, but my anger remained and still expressed itself in a variety of ways.
First of all, there was the matter of baby gifts. When I finally revealed my pregnancy to my family, 6 months along, I started warning family members: you don’t want to know who the father is and this girl will never wear pink. Don’t you dare send her pink things; no frilly dresses or princess movies, no delicate lace or barbie dolls. My child will be fierce. My child will wear red. I cannot have Kaya clashing with my personality.
They cringed but they complied.
Kaya sported jeans and hoodies; beanies and bindis; perfect little converse high tops and rainbow tights but she never wore a pink dress.
Then there were the stories. I changed the ends of the fairy tales I read to her so as to empower a fiery little woman, “And then the princess jumped into the damn pond herself and did not kiss any frogs because the princess knew that frogs never ever ever turn into princes. And what did she need a frog for anyway? Princesses can swim!”
I was not going to raise a woman who waited on a man for anything.
Then there was the matter of the way I treated men. I had a live-in boyfriend, Nico, a coworker who I had ended up dating towards the end of my pregnancy. I had partially settled down in that regard but still I held myself at a distance. Our fights were ferocious screaming battles where I accused him of trying to control me anytime he had any input. During our good times, we discussed marriage but I refused to settle on a date or solidify any plans for the future. Two years in, with a second child by then, I confided to my mother that I still wasn’t sure I could put up with him. It wasn’t only Nico who felt my ire. Every man I came into contact with got the sharp side of my tongue, from male coworkers to uncles. My wit was a weapon I wielded against each man I met, and I prided myself in my ability to bring them down a notch or two. My tongue now held the vestiges of my fire. Eventually, I built up such a fierce resentment against Nico that I used my tongue to drive him away for good.
There I was alone again, a 23 year old single mom of two kids, with only my rage to keep me company. Everything had fallen apart.
I began to dream of running away. I would leave the girls on my mother’s doorstep and disappear to some tropical island. I was a chef; I could support myself in any resort town in the world. No one would ever have to know where I had gone.
Even easier, I could escape into death. There, even my guilt at abandoning my children would not catch me. Suicide seemed a sweet escape route, and I flirted with taking my life as I drove to work each morning at 3 am, swerving my car closer and closer to the guardrail of the H-1.
It was there that the Lord found me. One day during that dark drive, I scared myself, coming closer than ever before to brushing that iron railing and finally spinning out over the freeway as I had fantasized. It was then that I shot a desperate little prayer up to heaven.
“God, if you’re really up there and you really do exist, I need you. I cannot handle this life on my own. I’ve screwed it up so badly and I don’t know what to do. I just want to die. Help me, please.”
Immediately I was given peace. Like a literal fountain flowing over my head, I felt it pour down over me. Calm anointed my head, rolled down across my shoulders, and splashed its way down to the very tips of my toes. Suddenly and inexplicably my rage was absent, and a rich, joyful quiet had replaced it.
That was the beginning of my walk with Christ.
As you can imagine, the Lord had a lot of work to do on me. I had so many issues, so much old deep pain and so many sin problems, I still don’t understand why He didn’t give me up for a hopeless hot mess. But he didn’t. Gently, graciously, and one by one, the Holy Spirit began to lead me towards questioning the lies I believed and replacing them with truth.
One of the gentle whispers I heard constantly.
Soften up, Kate.
But Lord, I would shoot back, a softer shade of red is pink. Pink!
I decided I would choose green as my color instead. Green as in new life. Green as in growth. At that time I was back in Hawai’i, the lush island paradise I had grown up in, and verdant green was all around me. Lord, clearly you love this color- the grass, the trees- it’s everywhere in your creation. Let me be green.
Still, I heard it. Soften, Kate, soften.
Gah, pink! I wanted to follow Christ. I wanted to live differently. But I did not want to let go of my fierce persona. My protection and my fuel, it warmed me at night and kept mourning at bay. Years after deciding to walk with the Lord, I was still petrified of anything pink. Pink was blatantly feminine, and femininity was weak. Femininity was powerless. Femininity left a girl exposed and defenseless.
Then came our Thomas family trip to Napa Valley. As usual, the entire extended family stayed together, all jumbled together in a vacation home, laughing, eating and playing games. These times had become the mark of our God restored family- we truly enjoy each other’s company and seek it out whenever we can. I was gloriously happy. My kids wandered from relative to relative basking in hugs and attention. Grandma Rosemary was always available for a game of scrabble. Cousin Eliot and I hiked down into the Valley below the vineyards scouting for mountain lions. My brother Will and Cousin Nat made me laugh until I cried every time we played Balderdash, the absurd definitions they wrote were so clever.
But time had done nothing to soften my tongue. My interactions with men, though I now knew joy, were still laced with that old protective fire. After all that healing, I was harboring red. I pointedly rubbed my brother’s singleness in his face, hinting that he would always be alone even as I massaged his feet. Over dinner, I attacked Uncle Chuck over politics, berating his views and disparaging his character. When Papa Bill offered caution in response to a plan I shared for getting my favorite verses tattooed on my body, I lashed out at him with vitriol. Never once did my ugliness catch my notice, it was so natural a way for me to respond to the gentlemen in my life, even the ones I loved most dearly.
But it caught my mother’s attention and finally loosened her tongue. My sweet, gentle mother is the most gracious woman I have ever known. Generally, she will overlook offense after offense and genuinely manages to love the unlovable. After all, she managed to love me and hope for the best even at my lowest point.
In Napa, though, she decided that it was finally time to address my hatred of men.
She tenderly pointed out to me the disrespect which I showed my male relatives. She wondered aloud why I was so quick to attack. She brought to light that my constant sarcasm could be hurtful.
Then she asked a question. “Why are you so angry, Kate?”
Never before had anyone spoken aloud the source of my protective mechanisms. Only in those old notebooks full of bitter poetry had I ever mentioned my fury. My rage had been buried so deeply for so long, I had thought it was dead.
Like a river raging across a broken damn, my fears and my furies poured out along with a torrent of tears. Men had hurt her so badly. How had she ever managed to love enough to marry my stepfather, her third husband, after what the first two had done to her? Men cannot be trusted. They will hurt you. They will leave you. They will break down your defenses then abandon you. Damn straight I was angry. How dare they!
As the words spilled forth, finally exposed to the light, I could see them for what they were- crumbling old defense systems set in place by a broken woman I no longer knew. A fortress to protect me from an enemy I no longer battled. Strongholds that I had set in place before I knew I was protected by the Lord of Hosts, the God of Angel Armies.
I didn’t need them anymore.
I could soften.
I could be a softer shade of red.
Even if it was pink.