Danielle Carissa, Orcas Island, by Vera Paskevich

When I was in seventh grade, one of my classmates said to me, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a man?” and I ran away and hid in the basement under the school and I cried my heart out, and when I finished crying, I went back upstairs and found her where she stood with her friends, and I said, “I forgive you.”


That was the only time I remember being called names at school; I was mostly ignored. I was left out of things. I was whispered about. I had one best friend, and she was (and still is) a treasure, the dearest sister of my heart. But I spent a lot of time by myself. Kids can tell when something isn’t right: they all knew, even though I never talked about what happened at home.


You feel like you start out already behind because you don’t have someone to braid your hair or show you how to use makeup or let you wobble around the house in her high heels (My parents taught me how to make a fire in the woods in the rain. They took me backpacking on Mount Rainier, on the Olympic Peninsula, in the Alaskan wilderness, when I was six years old. They taught me what to do if a grizzly bear attacks. We built a house together, from the ground up, in the middle of nowhere). You put yourself to bed, and you pack your own lunch—or don’t, and then your teachers call home because you came to school without anything to eat, or they call home because (and I’d rather hide under a rock than say this, but I want to tell the truth) because you aren’t taking a bath every day or you aren’t wearing a bra and you should be, and the other kids are talking about you, and the teachers are concerned.


And even now, even though I’m learning every day to see the essential loveliness of my own spirit and heart—which has nothing to do with what I’m wearing or whether I remembered to wash my hair—sometimes I still feel like the awkward kid who ran around in baggy jeans and men’s hand-me-down sweatshirts and pretended to be a horse (and yes! I cherish that little girl, too! Look at her, the only way she knows how to protect her own soul: inventing the best story she can imagine and then hiding inside it to escape everything falling apart and over and over—Dad breaking plates and Mom getting sick again—see how she preserved her own bright heart! See how she hid her heart inside a story so that now she can bring it out to give light to the whole world!) and I get so embarrassed because my hair’s a mess and my fingernails are broken and on the worst days, when I don't feel strong or beautiful, the darkest voice in my heart says, “There is something wrong with you. You are alone. You are unwanted,” and I get scared, and I forget about that lion-hearted little me. I forget to cherish her.


In April, Vera took me to Orcas Island and took photos of me on the ferry, on a mountaintop, beside the ocean, and I need to tell you that I have I never felt so beautiful in all my life and I have never felt so strong. When my friend Jess saw these photos, she said, “You look like a storm about to break. As powerful as thunder.” To be shown your own loveliness, your own power (which is always there, right inside my heart, but I forget) is a precious gift. That's what I want to give to people with my photos, and then Vera gave that gift to me, and I wanted to share it with you.

You can see more of Vera’s beautiful work at verapashphoto.net.


All photos in this post are courtesy of the wonderful Vera Paskevich and are used with permission.