Friday, September 12, 2014

Catharsis Through Cosplay

It's been a while. But I'm not going to write entire intro paragraphs about why that is anymore. I'm trying to put my life back together. It's time consuming. And writing these posts takes a long time and a lot out of me.

But writing is necessary. Because no matter how much time goes by or how busy I am, I still think about her every day. I still hurt. I still miss her so much I can actually feel wind pass through the hole inside me that losing her left. I know I won't be posting as often as I'd like, but I'm never going to stop trying.

But there's actually a reason I'm writing today.

Most of you who know me, know that I'm an avid cosplayer. What is cosplay you ask? Oh boy...

You know those people who dress up in crazy outfits and go to Comic Conventions? Those are cosplayers. Basically it's anyone who dresses up like their favorite characters. But it goes deeper than that. It's a community. Some of these people are master craftsmen and absolutely hardcore. I'm proud to say I'm slowly working my way up to be considered one of those madmen.

I did my first cosplay August of 2011. I had never been to Comic Con and always wanted to go. I knew a lot of people dressed up, so why not? I kept it simple to blend in. I already had some pieces for Poison Ivy from an unrelated project that didn't pan out, so I went with it. And there I was. At my first Con with a few friends and a guy who was not yet my boyfriend in nothing more a elaborate than a corset, a wig, some underwear, tights, and boots.


I barely even tried at this cosplay and people were taking pictures of me all day like I was a movie star. It was so much fun, but it DEFINITELY made me want to step my game up! Some of these cosplayers were amazing. I didn't feel like I deserved the attention I was getting compared to most of these people! I wanted to EARN it!

So I stepped it up.
And an obsession was born.

After Jenna passed, my parents started coming to the conventions as well. By then, my roommates had also picked up the hobby. My mom is a talented photographer and my dad loves to people watch, so they have almost as much fun as I do. It also helps that one of the biggest Chicago conventions, C2E2, just happens to fall on the last weekend in April every year - a weekend that's extremely difficult for my family. It's been very helpful to have a reason to be together that also keeps us busy. This way we can spend time together WITHOUT celebrating or giving special recognition to a horrible event.

2015 EDIT: Apparently C2E2 is now taking place in March this year. Kind of a bummer. At least I still have ACEN to have a reason to build something new and focus my energy.

Cosplay has swiftly become my favorite hobby. It combines all the elements of art that I'm good at with all the elements I've always wished I was better at. I learn from it, I'm affirmed for it, and it's fun. What's not to like?

This past year I did two cosplays - Ryuk from Death Note and Elsa from Frozen. They have been getting a LOT of attention and have given me the opportunity to work with a lot of tremendously talented people - from designers to photographers. People have been going out of their way to support me and promote me and it means a great deal because both of these cosplays (especially Elsa) have been very personal endeavors to me.

So that's why I'm writing. I want to share with you why all of this has meant so much to me. Here we go.

The Frozen Heart

I probably should have written more this winter, that's for sure. Because I went through a very odd phase... I've always been really good about expressing my feelings. I cry very easily because I prefer crying to other more destructive (in my opinion) reactions to strong emotions like anger or stoicism. Crying feels so much healthier. Studies have even shown that, unlike tears that are shed due to external stimulus like wind or dust, tears shed from emotion actually contain a stress hormone. This suggests that emotional crying is actually the body's way of flushing out the bad chemicals that are feeding the body's stress. Makes perfect sense. Especially when you think about how you feel after a nice good cry. Your body is weak, but in a good way. Your outsides feel puffy and wet and uncomfortable, but your insides feel clean.

But starting in the fall of last year... I stopped crying. At least over Jenna. And not in a good way. My body still felt the urge now and then, but I just... stopped myself. I was just so tired. I still am. I believe I mentioned before that there's a disconnect between "my sister who died" and "Jenna" in my mind. I think and talk about "my sister who died" a lot, but it's still really hard to think and talk about Jenna Jenna. Does that make sense? Like actually think about her in the context of something real - Remember a specific moment between us, actually try to think about how she would react to a certain situation, allow myself to acknowledge that in some circumstances I have no idea how she would react... and I never really will. I guess it's the difference between thinking about how losing my sister affects me personally (I'm grieving, I'm philosophizing, blahblahblah) versus... Thinking about how my sister is gone. Period. Not how I'm dealing with it, but just that the fact... is.

That second one is much harder. It's a part of the wound that is much harder to attend to so I've done it less frequently. As a result, it's healing over at a different rate than the rest of me. It weighs on me. It makes my heart hurt all the time and I have no idea what to really do about it because this is the part that only heals with time. Consequently, it feeds the parts of me that feel resentful toward the people who have moved on without me.

It started around end of September I think. Around Jenna's birthday. Maybe even sooner, but that's when I noticed it. I didn't write an entry about her birthday this past year. I was just so busy. And tired. I think I started feeling guilty because of that, even though I knew that I shouldn't. Then I felt like I was demonstrating that I was moving on more than I actually was, but I didn't know how to send a message to correct that impression without it looking like just a cry for attention. It was so confusing and I'm not used to not knowing how to help myself. I couldn't handle it anymore. These waves of feeling had been coming at me over and over for a year and a half and I keep dealing with them whole heartedly and there's only so much one person can take. So no. Not now.

A week later, I was moving into a new house. So I dealt with it. I internalized it, which is NOT my usual MO. I said "not now" again.

The problem is, once you turn it off, it's hard to turn it back on again... Because the longer you go, the bigger the build up. Meaning, the more you know you'll have to deal with when the wall finally comes down. I wasn't ready. And my ability to BE ready couldn't keep up with the amount I would have to deal with. It kept outpacing me.

I was stuck.

That's when I started acting weird.

Those months were hard. My emotions kept trying to escape in different ways that I wasn't used to. I started getting angry, I picked fights. I ran away a lot - I'd go places far away for a day and not tell anyone except Dashi and whoever I was going to visit. I still cried, but it was only about stupid shit and never progressed to the full body cleansing mode. I also made some questionable and out of character choices. I don't think I ever ACTUALLY reached a point where I started getting destructive (at least not enough for anyone to really notice or say anything), but I was definitely playing with fire on multiple occasions in a variety of ways. I'm a self aware person and recognized what I was doing so like I said, I kept a level of control over it, but not enough to really stop.

Mostly because I think... Part of me welcomed the change. As uncomfortable as I was, at least it was different. I justified it by thinking that I was so busy being strong and a touchstone for everyone during that first year, I never got a chance to really act out. So here I am acting out. I've never been a patient person, and no matter how constructive I was/am, this healing process can only happen so fast. Hell, I wouldn't even WANT it to happen faster. The fact that I'm healing at all only causes a different kind of pain. Does that make sense? No? I know, right? Can you see how part of me might have wanted a break, even though I knew it wasn't good for me?

Then the holidays happened. They were really lovely, filled with ways of coping and emotions that I'll get into on another post, but the short version is this: I played hostess that year down in Chicago. The holidays came and went in a blur and stacked up so many feelings that I may have finally broken open had it not been for all the distractions. Instead, I was doubly fortified and left with even more feelings that I felt even less equipped to deal with.

Great. Now I was REALLY stuck.

It was like a sneeze that refused to happen. I tried multiple things to shake it loose. One of my favorites was a trip to the Botanical Gardens that I actually can't wait to write about more extensively. If my life were a movie, that's the event that really would have been a turning point. But... it's not. So nothing stayed effective longer than a few days.

The Movie

Disney's Frozen had been out since the end of November. Everyone was talking about it on my newsfeed. It was a phenomenon after all. I'm sure most people have forgotten that now that it's been overplayed and everyone is sick of it, but think back to when it first came out. It was pretty amazing. It still is.

This was especially relevant to me since I work with kids. EVERYONE was talking about this movie. The songs were all any of my private lessons wanted to sing, even the kids from my 5 and under Music n Me class were obsessed.

I figured I should see it. I love Disney. But there was one problem...

It was a total sister movie.

In my current state, I was pretty nervous to subject myself to that. This was a movie that I would have seen with Jenna. This isn't the first time a movie like that has come out, and I always manage to pick the right person to go see it with me in her stead, but this time... I knew that if I went with anyone besides her, it would only highlight the fact that she wasn't there with me.

So then I had a thought... Why not go with Jenna?

So I did. First I prepped myself by reading the plot summary to prepare myself for any unexpected emotional daggers then I texted Dirk to verify her favorite movie snack. I went to work, dropped Alyssa off at dance, and before I could change my mind, went straight to the theater.

I bought two tickets, then snacks - Nachos with jalepeƱos. Her favorite. It was far more awkward than I expected trying to get the ticket guy to rip both of them for me when I clearly didn't have another person with me, but whatever. Then I sat down in the theater, put the seat down next to me, and watched Frozen with my sister.

Cried three times.
I still cry at the same moments every time I see the movie.

It's weird because I don't really see myself as Elsa, nor do I see Jenna as Anna. I don't even see Jenna and my relationship reflected in the movie's main conflict. It's the little moments that got to me. The ones that are universal with all sisters.

The one I remember the most is at the end of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman." Their parents have died and Anna sings "We only have each other... It's just you and me. What are we gonna do?" One of the things I still grieve for the most is the fact that there are certain events in life that you're supposed to share with your sister. And now I don't have one anymore.

I know I know, there are lots of people who don't have sisters or even siblings and they make it through just fine and I know that this is a tremendously self-centered issue I'm confessing, but I hope you'll forgive me.

It goes back to the idea that you're not only mourning the person you lost, but the life you were supposed to have with them. From the joyful moments like maid of honor things at your wedding or hers, to sorrowful things... like losing your parents someday. So whenever I see something that reminds me of it (which has been happening more and more frequently with "the wedding years" in full force and the "baby years" just starting to pick up), it's still... Really hard.

Side note: That comment is NOT meant to make any of my wonderful friends and family feel guilty about any past events or even feel remotely obliged to give me so much as a fragment of your attention on any future events that might fit this description. In fact, I encourage the opposite. If you ever catch me (which I hope you won't - I try to be very sneaky) take a second to gather myself during one of these occasions, I'd honestly prefer you ignore it. The last thing I want is to draw any attention from YOU during your special moments. I don't resent you or hold anything against you. This is just a thing I need to deal with from time to time so I can go back to being supportive and enthusiastic as quickly as possible.

The same goes (possibly even more so) for the sorrowful events. I've always dreaded the idea of losing my parents someday, but now I have to do it without my sister. That's a cloud of anxiety and fear that still hangs over me and will probably never go away.

So basically what I'm saying is... within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was a wreck.

Second time was during Let It Go because it's beautiful and pretty much everything I wanted to do with my feelings but was completely unable to at the time. I'll get into that more in a second.

Third time was... duh. For SO many reasons.

I cried that Elsa lost her, and even more that she got her back.
By the time I got to the credits, I had more feelings than I could possibly feel, and I had relieved the pressure considerably with the few times I cried, but I was still stuck.

That's probably why I identified with Elsa the most. The movie itself was absolutely connected to my sister, but the individual character and journey of Elsa really hit close to home how I was feeling lately. I had cut myself off in a lot of ways from a lot of people. I was trying to hard to stay composed and emotionally healthy because I HAD to. As much as people were still willing to be there, it hurt them to see me in pain. And I was so tired of pain. So because I had shoved it down for so long, my emotions were now completely out of control. I needed a Let It Go moment. Well no, not just that. Because most people don't realize that Elsa is still incorrect about what she needs when she's singing that song (just cut myself off from everyone so I can just be me and they can be them and nobody has to worry about anyone anymore). What I needed was whatever the fallout would be from a Let It Go moment. 

I needed a REAL turning point.

So I got to thinking.

The Thaw

About two weeks later, after much online searching and finding nothing worth the money that I could potentially alter, I decided I just needed to start from scratch. I got in touch with my friend Jeanine, who happened to be a fabulous seamstress and designer. We put the plan into action.

I also started practicing the song. This was the first time I've actually had to vocally train myself in quite a while. I don't know if ya'll know this, but that song is HARD. But it is also a very cathartic piece of music. Pushing myself like that has cleansing properties.

I even wrote a version of the song that was about dealing with my loss and wanting to come out of my current "frozen" state of mind. Maybe I'll record that sometime.

Less than a month later, it happened.

I was watching (of all the STUPID things) The Vampire Diaries. During the particular season I was on, one of the main characters had died and was having a really difficult time accepting it (did I mention she was wandering around as a ghost?). In the scene I was watching at the time, she had finally accepted her death and was saying goodbye to everyone.

I. Lost. My. SHIT.

I started to cry. Then I started to really cry. Then I could not stop. I cried for about 45 minutes when Dashi came in to say hello and encountered the slow motion train wreck taking place in a tangle of blankets and laundry, The Vampire Diaries STILL playing in the background. He didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do. I just couldn't stop. The floodgates had opened.

He held me for a little while and that helped. When it became evident that this was no longer something that could be controlled, I gave him leave to go and continued about my business, crying the entire time, periodically taking moments to collapse and relapse back into "losing my shit" mode.

After almost two hours total, it finally stopped. I slept like the dead that night.

Over the next few weeks, there were several "after shocks." I would start crying unexpectedly and not be able to stop at very unexpected and inconvenient times. The worst was when I was driving. It was very distracting.

I called this time "The Great Thaw" because it seemed to correspond with the weather. As the snow melted, so did I.

It was a very muddy spring.

The Cosplays

And so I went to C2E2 this year in two cosplays that meant a great deal to me and my relationship with my sister. Yes, two.

In fact, I would say that Elsa was more for me, Ryuk was actually more for her.

The big scary black and white cosplay is feminine interpretation of a god of death called Ryuk. He is a character from the anime "Death Note." One summer day, my friend Bobby came over with the series and we started watching it. Jenna wandered with her computer to hang out for a bit and before she knew it, she was hooked. We got through about half the season in one day. I was out of town the following weekend (don't remember why) and apparently she ended up binge watching the rest of the series all by herself. She called me in GREAT distress because she had just spent her weekend binge watching anime and she was pretty sure that officially made her a nerd.

I'm pretty sure she was right. Some things can't be helped. *shrug*

It was one of those things we bonded over. I really wish she could have seen the cosplay. She might have even been impressed.

The other one was obviously Elsa. And like I said, that one was more for me when I really think about it. It was more a manifestation of this particular chapter in my journey to help me make it real. Once you really identify a thing, you have power over it. You can fight it properly.

I really don't want to go back to that place again.

So this Elsa cosplay has become very precious to me. Not only did it manifest from a deeply personal place, it has grown and connected so many people in so many different ways, helped along by the song I worked so hard to finally get right. Elsa is the first cosplay that's ever made me money rather than suck me dry - Each birthday party I do now pretty much finances a future cosplay. The connection with the kids is also something I hold very dear. My relationship with kids has pretty much saved my soul these past two years. When nothing else can make me feel whole, that does. In one way or another. Being able to bring a character to life has been a unique and precious experience.

Finally, I want to make sure thank all the incredibly talented and creative people who have participated in creating, capturing, and supporting this particular character.

First and foremost, Jeanine Fry. Thank you so so much for not only making this dress, but for driving up all of those occasions for fittings, including after C2E2 to REmake the dress and ensure that it ended up as nothing less than everything we were hoping for. I absolutely LOVE working with you and cannot wait to create more spectacular things in the future.

I hope everybody reading this will please visit her Facebook page, like it, and follow her work. Maybe even commission her for something in the future! This girl is passionate about not only making clothes but also about sustainability and making the world a genuinely better and less wasteful place.

Also a thank you to Erin Polinski. Without your initial design and guidance, I never would have been able to build and style that wig into what it is now.

I definitely want to thank the talented photographers who captured these cosplays. Tino Caceres of Scorpio Concept Designs not only photographed my Elsa, but also did a KILLER set for my Ryuk cosplay as well.

Eddie Bonneau, I don't even know where to start. He booked me for his daughter's birthday and has been an incredibly valuable contact. I finally got to shoot with him for the first time at Wizard World last month and learned so much. The photo set is unbelievable and has inspired other amazing photographers I know like Kaminsky Kandids and River Walk Studios to create composites with incredible effects.

I also want to make sure I think my roommates, Dashi, Joe, and Alli for putting up with all the glitter in the house, but also for supporting and promoting me. Alli is the reason I even know any of these photographers in the first place.

Thank you to my mom for gluing on those last minute bodice pieces and for cleaning the up giant mess I made throughout the weekend of C2E2. I can't imagine how long that crap would have sat there if you hadn't gotten the process started. Also thank you to my dad for not saying anything about the mess... At least not THAT particular weekend.

Actually I'd like to thank anyone and everyone who cared about either or both of these cosplays - There are a few specific people who come to mind and they know who they are. Those who shared the pictures, who told people about me for parties, who wanted to hear me sing the song.... I know it all probably seems very... I dunno... superficial or career motivated on the surface, but the fact that so many people are interested and excited about this project for WHATEVER reason... Well, it really means a lot to me. I can't even begin to express how much.

Cosplay can be a really powerful thing. It's the chance for kids AND adults to meet characters they love and look up to. It's a chance for them to BE characters they love and look up to. It's both an escape and a connection. It's a funnel for all my creative drive and focus with an incredible payoff. I'm so glad I discovered it.

September and April are always the hardest months for me to get through and this experience and the results are exactly what I need to remind me to let myself feel. It's exhausting, but letting the pain in is sometimes the only way to let it out.

Finally I want to thank Jenna. For being my sister, for going to the movie with me, and for continuing to inspire me push myself. You were doing that long before I lost you, but it's really nice to know that you haven't stopped.

The cold never bothered her anyway:)

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