The Clueless Project

What I Learned From Haylee

Ice breaker: "Go around in a circle, say your name, your pronouns, and how you know me."

We're sitting on a hill at Gas Works Park, looking out onto the Seattle skyline. It's a fair summer night, light until late, with a soft breeze. There are fire dancers around the corner and rumors are swirling that "the guy from Passion of the Christ," Jim Caviezel, is sitting on the dock, filming an NFL Films documentary on the Seahawks (he was). 

It's Haylee's 20th birthday and she's excited to bring her friends from various groups (fellow editors at the student newspaper, activists from student government, fellow aficionados in debauchery) together to celebrate her existence. To get to know each other, she attempts to initiate an icebreaker and while we refuse to share fun facts, we'll reminisce about how we met her. 

Q: WHAT TWO POSITIVE ADJECTIVES WOULD YOU USE TO DESCRIBE YOURSELF?

A: FIERY. THOUGHTFUL. AND GENUINE.

I met Haylee as last year's long winter began to break. We were at the end-of-quarter party for The Daily and she had just been hired on staff. A friend of mine and I were discussing the perks that pretty people get (espousing the perspective of uggos, as self-appointed representatives of the not-so-pretty people), and Haylee plopped down on a couch and started to talk about these "pretty perks," but from the perspective of a pretty person

I remember it so clearly. At the same time, she had long hair that faded from brown to blonde to green. She was wearing a beanie and was covered in cool tattoos. I responded negatively to her boldness, to her unabashed sense of self worth. I carried that attitude for some time, as we rarely interacted, but when I began to interact with her regularly, when I let myself shed preconceived notion and gain true insight, my feelings morphed into admiration and respect. I watched her turn the paper's opinion section into a relevant, well-written place for reflection; I listened to her speak with conviction about the things she believes matters; I experienced her openness when I came to her to discuss all those little questions we all feel too stupid to ask, but desperately need to know about. Most importantly, I learned that knowing yourself -- what your passions are, who you're loyalty, and even what society thinks of your physical appearance (I mean, yeah, she's super hot according to our cisnormative Western beauty standards, ok!) -- and being confident in those things is a virtue. 

But I wanted to know more.

Gas Works Park. Photo Credit: Imana Gunawan (Twitter: @imanafg

Fortunately, she let me spend her birthday with her, asking way-too-personal questions ("tell me about your mother!") in very public spaces (Pike Place Market, the Seattle Public Library). 

We set Ugly Mug Cafe as our rendezvous point. Named for the distorted faces carved into the art deco building it inhabits on the Ave., the main street in Seattle's University District, the coffee shop is Haylee's second home. It was no surprise she was already settled in when I arrived, sipping an almond latte and reading David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." 

From there, we bused to the market. We walked by tourists gawking at the industrial-sized vat of Beecher's Cheese and bought ourselves jewelry and Rainier cherries. At every stop, Haylee spoke to vendors about their wares, and was sure to tell each person it was her birthday. In the few hours we were there, she made a half dozen people smile and received several freebies (birthday perks? or pretty perks?) including free cherry apple cider (which she is allergic to but drank half of anyway) and a bushel of lavender (which she plans to turn into a pillow). In that time she also received dozens of calls, texts, and Facebook posts wishing her a happy birthday. 

"What have you been up to lately?" someone asked on the other end of the line. 

"Writing, being crazy, having lots of sex," Haylee responded as the masses shuffled down the street, past crumpet shops and Starbucks stores. 

For lunch she chose, at random, the Seattle Art Museum's Taste. Between free lemon lovage sorbet and our waiter actually complimenting her use of the word "fuck" in public, she told me more about her suicide attempts as a middle schooler and her parent's apathy when she told them about her intermittent desire to die. When she was a senior in high school, her aunt died by suicide, and her parent's callous wonderment that this had happened to a member of their family, as though it was the first time something like this had affected a member of their family. 

Q: WHAT ARE TWO THINGS THAT GIVE YOUR LIFE MEANING?

A: HUMAN EMPATHY. THE PURSUIT OF THE PERFECT EXPLANATION.

A sense of otherness, of not belonging, combined with brain chemistry, family life, and likely a few unknowable, intangible factors, pushed her toward suicide. But when she survived, decided she wanted to live, these same factors pushed her to develop a personal philosophy at a young age, pushed her to read and to create.

Intriguingly, she is an optimist. If she weren't, she would be dead, she said. We talked several times about her belief that there aren't actually bad people on this earth ("maybe one in 5 million"), actively trying to make others unhappy or get in their way. She thinks instead, that most people are damaged or insecure, that they don't know better, or don't reflect on how their actions affect others. She also believes the world can and will be a better place, because of people like her and her friends. 

Apathy, however, is a significant obstacle. As long as people continue to think that nothing can be done or changed or improved, nothing will be done or changed or improved. As someone who might fall into this apathetic category (I care, but I don't see what I can to do to help), I have always been intrigued by Haylee's conviction and the small, tangible ways she promotes good.

The most prominent example occurred when she talked about her decision not to consume art or media produced by rapists or abusers. While I won't listen to Chris Brown, and clearly we've all moved far, far away from Bill Cosby, I haven't taken it farther, haven't researched the people to avoid or ever been convinced that pulling my tiny gold brick, my financial support, from these celebrity's Jenga empires could actually help send these unjust structures tumbling down. But Haylee convinced me that is worth trying, that such small things have changed the media landscape before and can again. In other words, she convinced me that things don't have to be this way. By the time we recorded a podcast on misogyny in pop culture, our ideas meshed perfectly. 

Twelve hours into our Clueless adventure, as I was heading home from the park, ready to put on pajamas and write about our day, I concluded that Haylee's most unique and admirable attribute was that she is always, always herself, no matter the situation she is placed in. 

Q: WHAT ARE TWO THINGS YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH BEFORE YOU DIE?

A: PUBLISH A BOOK OF POETRY. LIVE IN NYC.
NEVER STOP BEING HUNGRY FOR KNOWLEDGE.
CONVINCE THE WORLD THAT THINGS DON’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

This is a rare quality, as most of us try to adapt ourselves to our surroundings, contorting our true selves to please the people around us. As a doggedly diplomatic person and overeager chameleon myself, it's no wonder I initially found Haylee's approach to life startling. While I know I am quiet at the start, seeking out my place in a given context, deciding what jokes will or won't fly with the crowd, Haylee actively, even aggressively, flouts these supposed social mores because she wants to share who she is unfiltered.

From our discussion, it seems her decision to be uniquely herself is a product of uncertainty about what others think of her (something, I think, we all struggle with), and a firm belief that by being open with who she is, she provides others the opportunity to do the same. By sharing her experiences as someone who has suffered abuse and deals with mental illness, but also as someone who loves pot and poetry, she hopes people will feel comfortable to share their experiences, big and small, good and bad. As much as she believes in the impact a person can make by withdrawing their support of misogynistic or abusive artists, she believes in her own art, in the power of creating and sharing it with the world, even more. 

I also saw that, despite her confidence in herself and her actions, Haylee also actively cultivates her innate desire to improve as a friend and boss. While she reflects on how she behaves and works to make the best choices for herself and those around, she is worried about the impact she has, that her intentions might not align with their outcomes. In this way, Haylee strikes the beautiful, difficult balance between staying true to herself and always being open to the experiences, needs, and desires of others. She is eager to grow, but rightfully resistant to ever fundamentally changing. 

The sun has settled lower into the sky and there is a purple haze sitting just behind the Seattle skyline. We watch the world dim as the ice breaker makes its way around the circle and back to Haylee. She laughs as she considers her own prompt:

Name? Haylee. 

Pronouns? She/her and they/them. 

How do you know Haylee? Well. . .