Monday, April 7, 2008

Love to SARK and an Ode to Mentoring

It's a matter of public record that my godmother, who happens to also be a bestselling author-artist named SARK, is totally awesome. You can go to Planet Sark to figure out why, if you're not already sure.

But I'm not writing today about her career, which is impressive and exciting and inspiring. I'm thinking about the incredible value of having her around to mentor me through life changes, like the one I'm careening towards right now. I'm thinking about how sad it is that our culture seems suspicious of mentors, if they exist outside of academia or professional spheres.

I spent my young childhood in Berkeley, California, surrounded by both single adults and families. I wasn't deeply invested in the nuclear family as a goal to shoot for in my own life, because I had divorced parents who had mastered the art of creating separate and equally loving homes. I bounced around. At Mom's house, we lived with the same two other roommates for nine years. Sandy and Kaki (yes, me and big sis made up the second nickname) were single female friends in their thirties who had moved in together to save money. They worked in interesting fields, played generously with Erica and I, had "family dinners" with us at night, and never, in my memory, presented with anxieties about being single. We had various other people live with us, and we moved a few times, but even when we moved away from Sandy and Kaki because of my mother's remarriage, I considered them part of a certain stable family unit. I still see them, and will always love them. In a very concrete way, living with them taught me that mentoring friendships, relationships between adults and younger people outside their family, matter.

I met SARK when I was 11. This story is also a matter of public record, since I must have told it at least 75 times. We met at the San Francisco Book Festival. She called me an "angel," and told me to write to her. I didn't. I was too intimidated. At the same Festival the following year, she remembered me, and asked why I hadn't written. I lied, and claimed my letter "must have been lost in the mail." (Ten years later, when I finally admitted this, to shocked laughter, she held a glass of water over my head for a second, so, so tempted to tip it...) I was buying the same posters I'd bought from her the year before, because my belongings had been destroyed in a house fire. She clucked, "Well, I'm going to give you some presents," and loaded me up with books, posters, SARK stationary, and asked me again to write.

This time I did. She invited me to visit her at her Magic Cottage in San Francisco, and the story keeps going from there. In a nutshell: we became friends, in a beautifully unique way, which had some precedent in my life, but none in my culture at large, that I know of.

When I was 23, and had planned my trip to Thailand, SARK (now Susan) and I were out to dinner in Santa Barbara. She expressed some sadness that she had not been included in my emails to family about the trip. "I'd like some more rights," she said, smiling. "I want to be one of the people who hears things right away." She suggested that I become a godchild. We'd been in a deeply intimate mentoring friendship for ten years, and it finally had a name that made sense to the rest of the world. It also makes very good sense to us--there's nothing Catholic about the designation. Susan was already bound to me by spiritual contract, and now we've got some external agreements, too.

Last week I called her and requested a half-hour of her time to help me with some life-decisions. I didn't expect her to be "objective," but to be able to ask me questions that would elicit more of my own desires and fears about moving back to California, or staying in Boston another year. There are many factors to consider here: job offer, relationship, where to live, financial issues, writing my novel, and so on. We talked for 40 minutes. I came away with valuable clarity. I also came away with the deeply grounding feeling of her love for me, her unflappable belief in my right to a creative life, and her utter calm in the face of issues that had been causing me some real anxiety.
I wonder if one of the reasons our bond grew so strong is that we chose each other. This is the main difference between us and other godparent relationships: my parents had very little to do with it. They didn't choose Susan for me. They weren't friends with her first. They supported my growing friendship with Susan, helped me visit her, asked friendly, interested questions about her, and developed their own connections with her. When I was fourteen they helped me travel to the Bahamas, on my own, to celebrate Susan's 40th birthday with a group of people all older than me. I never felt my parents were attempting to intrude or regulate what happened when Susan and I were together. They trusted me, consciously or not, to pursue that friendship out of a desire for growth, not out of an insecurity about my own family. They never insulated me from other adults, for which I will always be slightly amazed and totally reverent.

I worry about the American suspicion of adults who care for children. It seems that adults who enjoy children, or who have particular children with whom they bond, are only the subject of scandal. Unless you are already a parent, or a teacher, somehow you are supposed to stay respectfully clear of the developing young minds around you. Without parental control, or the credentials of an official mentoring program, you have no right to have your own friendship with a young person. I feel especially sad for young men, who can't even babysit without suspicion. American movies that involve some kind of non-academic mentoring from an unafilliated adult rarely depict something healthy. I'd be so grateful if you came up with rebuttals here. I'm also looking for films or texts from other cultures that include mentoring, of any kind. I know that the trope of the sexual mentor has been played out many times--and I'll check those out too, but I'm looking more for friendships between older and younger people that are depicted as loving, fruitful, having some longevity, and existing outside a familial, professional, or sexual structure. I'd love to hear personal stories, if you've got them.

My friendship with Susan changes as we age. There are new arenas of exciting collaboration opening up now, and shifts in our roles in each others' lives. The layers of intimacy keep peeling back and folding in, and I'm so, so grateful, and so glad.


  1. Darling Vanessa,
    Your words made me cry, laugh and I'm fiercely glad to know & love you. Thank you!!! love, Susan (aka Vanessa's Godmother)

  2. wow. what a beautiful tale of connection.
    i'm so glad the universe brought you two together!

  3. oh that is so glorious... and gorgeous...

    and i'm very glad to hear of it...

    thank you for sharing vanessa ~
    you've raised some really beautiful points about mentoring here.

    i've been blessed to have a number of spiritual mentors... older women who have made my life richer, deeper and wiser. there is something archetypal and communal with having elders to be with, ask questions of and learn from.

    sark has also been an angel mentor through her books... she is a lighthouse for so many of us to find our own lights, direction and way.

    have a gorgeous day vanessa ~
    bright blessings

  4. Vanessa, your story of your relationship with Susan really touched me. I love that you two have been there for eachother and I love this unique relationship you have. I hope relationships like this will be more common in the future.

  5. This is so great! I especially love this: "Susan was already bound to me by spiritual contract, and now we've got some external agreements, too." I also love the points you've made about mentoring relationships and our society and children. One of my best friends is 11 years old and I dream of having this kind of relationship with her as she gets older.

    I wish you clarity in this ~ and all your choices.

    "The Dish"

  6. That was really beautiful. I am so glad to read of 2 women who have found this connection - and so glad the Susan has happily embraced the mentor role. Congrats to both of you and thank you for focusing on such a important issue.

  7. Welcome ladyv, Leonie, Dominique, Trisha-Dish, and red sonja! It's a great delight to hear your voices. And I'm glad to know that my and Susan's story touched you.
    It's especially heartening to hear that you are trying out your own mentoring, and have had mentors too. Maybe there's a quiet lovely army of us, building building...
    And Susan, goddess-mom, I've trusted your support of gorgeous curiosity all along, but it's so exciting to have a new arena here to connect in.

  8. Thank you for being a mentor to me. It sometimes escapes my notice that it's special in our culture, and not just special to me. I love you. Thank you!


  9. Vanessa,

    another fantastic post. It still boggles my mind that I have been committed to you for two years and have not met your godmother.

    I'm glad that SARK was there to give you a gentle push into your brave leap.

    As far as movies that reflect some of what you have brought up about mentoring:

    Finding Neverland
    About a Boy

    There are more, but I can't think of them now

  10. This is a beautiful and touching tribute; I love your having shared the story with the world.

    I chose my Godfather when I was around twelve, he was dating my favorite aunt but he and I connected and decided that even if they didn’t work out we would still remain close. I was his honorary niece and he was my honorary uncle. When he married my aunt my mother made it legally binding by updating her will so that if anything happened to her they would finish raising me. We are very, very close and he remains one of the most influential men in my life.

    My daughter is only four but when she was two she picked her Godfather as well. When she was a baby I approached a couple that I had a close relationship with about being named in our will and without hesitation they agreed. Life happened and as it was she never connected with them. There was; however, a completely unlikely individual in my life that she instinctively loved. She knew of him more that she could possibly know him but I knew that she had found someone with whom she was immediately connected. They too have a spiritual contract but as a tribe or family unit there are now external agreements as well. Their relationship exists outside of the one that he and I have, their love is so pure and so tangible that those on the outside having been graced with the opportunity to witness it for themselves know beyond any doubt that he needed her as much as she needed him. I think these connections are rare but I am ever thankful that my little one has someone that loves her so completely even though he has no obligation whatsoever to do so.

    Congratulations on finding that for yourself as well.

  11. I love hearing more stories about these connections! Thank you Melissa. It's heartening to know that there are more child-chosen mentors out there than I had perceived.

    In college, I started babysitting for a family in my neighborhood after the 3-year-old "chose" me one day. I was walking by their house and little Chris starting talking to me. Apparently he was usually very shy of strangers. Chris's dad asked me if I babysat, because he trusted the instinct. I had a very sweet relationship with them during my years there.