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Most names, locations, and other identifying information have been left out or changed to maintain individual privacy. Special thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for providing a time capsule of the websites on which much of this story takes place.
We know now that once something is online it’s there forever, but the weight of that meaning wasn’t always fully understood. Tools exist to find virtual digsites, and while it won’t make a difference to discourage the curious from becoming digital tourists, please bear in mind the lens of time through which you’re looking. Please be mindful if you choose to visit these places of the past: take nothing but lessons, and leave nothing but viewcounts.
Pages containing heavy themes will include a specific content warning, and the option to skip any detailed descriptions to read a short summary instead.
General content warnings for the entire story include:
- Parental divorce
- Depictions of depression
- Depictions of emotional abuse
- Mentions of self-harm
- Mentions of sexual themes
- Death of a loved one
- Depictions of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Mentions of cannabis use
My Dad’s father believed it was his duty to join the Navy, and the duty of his young wife’s to stay home and raise their 3 children alone. He would later return home and remarry, starting a new family before eventually reconnecting with my Dad over a shared interest in geneology.
My Dad’s mother had schizophrenia at a time when doctors believed the cure was electroshock therapy, and never had the support she needed to raise children by herself. She spent years in psychiatric institutions before finally spending the rest of her days in a nursing home, which Dad tried to visit often.
My Mom’s parents were both second-generation Lebanese immigrants and ethnically Druze, though neither chose to incorporate the religious aspect of the culture into their lives. They were perfect soulmates, married right out of high school, and pursued their vision of the American dream together with glamor and poise. They cherished their friends, family, and life itself, and it showed in the way they raised their 3 children together. They embraced the world with unconditional love and acceptance, and when Mom met Dad they embraced him too, welcoming him into the kind of family he’d always wanted but never had.
My dad tried to care for his siblings when his mother couldn’t. His aunt and uncle helped playing the role of parents until he was old enough to volunteer at the fire department, where he found his first chosen family. Later in life he started attending the Unitarian Universalist church, where he found acceptance and structure as he searched for meaning in something larger than himself.
My mom had the unwavering support of her big Lebanese family, and the doctrine drilled into her that good grades and a college diploma would be all that stood in the way of a straightforward life plan. She was a hippie in her teens, dropped out of college after her second year, and found work at a law firm which she hated. At some point she met my dad.
They got married, and in 1993 I was born.
The Story of the Artist
I don’t remember much about being in church, besides causing an evacuation because the fire alarm said “pull” and I had just learned to read.
I’m told it was an open-minded place, encouraging members to find what they believed in even if it fell outside the structure of organized religion. The congregation was made up of people from all walks of life– so diverse, in fact, that Mom says she worried how she’d answer if I ever asked questions about ‘the man in the dress’ who attended each week. But I never noticed or — if I did— never thought to ask.
Most Sundays, I was too busy getting lost in the quilted star tapestries that hung on the walls of the chapel like night sky windows. The morning sermon would find me in my frilly dress, fidgeting with my hems and not really hearing the words but enjoying the parts where we sang. Sometimes the pastor read passages from the Bible or the Torah or the Quran, and sometimes he would share personal stories or stories shared by others. This only further confused me as to which parts came from which religion and which parts didn’t come from a book at all, and to this day I’m still not quite sure. But it seemed like the point of the sermons was not so much about the words or their origins as it was about the meaning behind them.
The pastor would say something like, “the meaning of God is different for each person,” but I didn’t know which version of him was I supposed to be looking for, seeing as there were so many. The pastor would say something like, “God appears differently for everyone,” but I didn’t know how I would recognize him if he could look like anything or anyone else. The pastor would say something like, “God is found on your personal journey to pursue truth and happiness, which is guided by your conscience and morals,” but I didn’t know what that meant because my conscience wasn’t a talking cricket, and I didn’t even know what a moral was.
I never figured out why I would believe in God, if he wasn’t a real guy that lived in the clouds and could bring me happiness if I asked nicely. What I did figure out was that the pre-set snack tables in the reception hall were unsupervised during sermons, that eating a donut would make me truly happy right now, and that I was trusted enough to excuse myself for the ‘restroom’ alone. If God existed, he must have agreed that I should have the donut because he never stopped me.
Over time we attended church less frequently until at some point we stopped going altogether, although I never really noticed when or why. And so my experience of church and God and religion would later be summed up as nothing more than an excuse to take a second donut after each Sunday sermon, surrounded by adults who never pointed out the Krispy Kreme box with one empty space, or the rainbow sprinkles already stuck to my dress.
Instead, I was raised by fairytales.
I grew to believe in the journey of heroes, the monsters that tried to stop them, and the power of storybook magic to always end in “happily ever after.” Each of those stories shaped who I was growing to become, and each lesson learned further informed my view of the world around me. I was learning every moral I needed to know from fairytales, I can still recall them now. For example:
- Little Red Riding Hood: don’t trust strange wolves in the woods, otherwise they’ll impersonate someone you love in order to eat you
- The Three Little Pigs: patience and hard work pays off, and it’s the only thing stopping a wolf from breaking into your house to eat you
- The Boy Who Cried Wolf: don’t lie for attention, or no one will come save you when a wolf attacks your sheep (and then eats you, too)
It should come as no surprise that the monsters hiding under my bed all took the shape of wolves in the dark.
Over time, I branched into a wider range of stories and learned to illuminate the darkness with the Very Lonely Firefly, to imagine and create with Harold and his purple crayon, and to befriend my monsters with Max and his wild things. I learned the value of acceptance and chosen family with Stellaluna, that sharing your unique gift can spark happiness with Rainbow Fish, and that even when I’m grown my mother would still love me forever, her baby I’d be. When I learned to read by myself, I’d spend afternoons traveling through time with the Magic Treehouse before returning home in time for dinner.
I eventually learned that not all monsters look like wolves and that not all heroes wear capes, but I never learned where to find magic in the world. I wanted to believe so badly that I had magic of my own, and that it was just staying hidden to protect itself — and me — from any monsters in the world until I was strong enough to wield it. I searched desperately for ways to activate my latent powers, to reveal who I truly was inside, and I must have wished upon a thousand stars for my dream to come true. I wanted to believe magic was real, and that it could look like me.
The threads that would form the tapestry of my identity were already being woven, even if I didn’t know it yet. I couldn’t have predicted how those stories would continue to influence me and shape the path of my life for years to come.
Then one fateful day, dad brought home a VHS tape of Disney’s animated film Balto. It was there in front of the TV, watching as an animated half-dog discovered his wolf ancestry, that I found true magic.