Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.
After twenty years in NYC design agency life, Brandi Parker (she/they) is now an independent sustainable packaging and brand consultant with her company Parker Brands. She and her wife, Megann, are parents to their baby girl, Ellea Berlin, and live back home in Arkansas.
What is the thing you like doing most in the world?
Giving myself space and patience— doing what I want to.
And, right now, that means spending most of my spare time with my wife and my baby girl (now a toddler), hanging out, being silly and snuggly. And, I’ve been able to do this because I started my own business as an independent sustainable packaging and brand consultant, so I have more control over my day-to-day life.
I have always identified as a generalist; as an artist, a musician, a creative (and recently, a sustainability subject matter expert). Often this meant not knowing what to do next or how to prioritize my time. Since having a baby, my priorities have never been clearer.
What is the first memory you have of being creative?
I remember my mother took my little brother and me to the library every week when we were kids. She loved reading and would get a stack of books every trip. We could pick out any books we wanted. Mama loved mysteries when she was a kid, but I figured out that rather than Nancy Drew, I loved reading ‘How to Draw’ books. I practiced constantly with pencils, crayons and paint. I’d ask my parents to draw things for me, so I could watch them. I guess I assumed once you got older, everyone knew how to draw. The books helped me more than my folks did— plus, I could do it on my own. I always thrived on independent learning and just alone-time in general.
What is your biggest regret?
At various points in my life, I’ve identified big regrets— like staying with that one person for too many years, or not taking that big, scary opportunity because I was too afraid. But, as time goes on, any feelings of those regrets seem to fade and it is hard to think of one now. Mistakes: yes, but regrets… maybe not?
To me, regret means if you could go back and do it all over, you’d do it differently. And, so far, having the privilege of hindsight, and seeing the progression of life based on decisions and actions I’ve made, I couldn’t imagine changing a thing.
An art teacher I had in elementary school purposefully removed all the erasers from all the pencils in his classroom. He always said, “there are no mistakes.” To him, an errant mark on the paper was an opportunity.
I guess I understand now really what that means.
How have you gotten over heartbreak?
I don’t know that I have.
I think when someone or something means so much to you that you experience heartbreak, there’s no such thing as getting over it. I think what must happen is allowing space and patience for yourself to work through it, process your feelings (and really feel them), and figure out a way to continue, adding that heartbreak to your journey pack.
Thinking about it now, I suppose, like mistakes, heartbreaks are opportunities.
What makes you cry?
Thinking about heartbreaks.
My first real heartbreak was the passing of my maternal grandmother. She was the matriarch. She was kindness and generosity. I hadn’t considered the idea that she would die; that I’d live a life without her. I was shocked when she died. My mother was in her mid-forties when she lost her mother. She’s spent time since mourning her passing.
Now, in my mid-forties, I’m losing my mother— or, rather, have lost her. Her body is still alive, but she left years ago. On one hand, Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease for layers and layers of reasons for all of us… but on the other— it’s the most humane— in that the person with the disease has no idea they’re sick. They forever live in a reality that looks nothing like the one the rest of us have agreed on. It’s the only disease I can think of where everyone else in one’s life experiences it as or more intensely than the person that has it does. This heartbreak eclipses all others.
How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?
It depends on the magnitude of the thing accomplished, but generally accomplishments go in my journey pack with everything else. In other words, to some degree, I feel them the rest of my life. Past accomplishments become fuel for the next ones.
Allowing myself to hold onto, or continue to feel pride and joy also helps me remember and helps me see possibilities. I can sometimes see patterns in the past, giving me confidence for setting out for the future.
Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?
I grew up in the bible belt (and have since returned). Growing up here had a huge impact on shaping my views. As I’ve wrestled with this question throughout my life, I keep coming back to the same kind of answers.
I stopped going to church when I was around 14. I just could not get past the Christian ideas of living and afterlife that were forced on me. None of it made sense, and it was at that age when I felt certain I just did not believe those ideas— like, Hell: how could God create someone or something, just to doom it to eternity?
Around the time my maternal grandmother passed, I wrestled a lot with Christian Heaven. I hoped she was reuniting with people from her past, but I was in such despair, I just could not see past an eternal darkness; a light switched off.
Once I got through the despair, though, I started to form more ideas. (If I’d loved reading more, I guess I could have found similar thoughts in books by philosophers). But my thought-process was original to me— what if part of the afterlife was simply the impression you left on the living? Did people celebrate you? Or, did they wish you good riddance, forgetting you even existed soon thereafter? Did memories of you live on and get passed down? Did people have smiles on their faces when they said your name? Did the way you lived life influence five people or 5,000?
In this way, I could start to see how a ‘soul’ could work; how an entity could be in many places at once; how I could imagine one kind of eternity. And, in my life since, I can understand that we are all connected, sharing the same energy, and how our actions ripple through space and time.
The question I think about now is, “is there an afterlife or is dying just living differently in space and time?”
What do you hate most about yourself?
I recoil at the word, “hate.” But, it is an accurate way to describe the feelings I have about specific aspects of me.
I hate my female physicality. It has always been a source of physical and emotional pain and burden, and medical problems. I’ve never wanted to be a man, I just don’t want to be a woman. I used to dream about a reality where I was neither and got to live without gender. It’s awesome to see gender fluidity become more discussed and represented. Twelve-year-old me is super psyched!
I hate my self-hate. I punish myself endlessly. I hold myself to the highest standards and beat myself into oblivion if and when I don’t meet those. I’m getting better with this negative self-talk, but it remains. Like most, I’m a lifelong work-in-progress.
What do you love most about yourself?
I love my resilience and tenacity.
I just keep going, despite myself. And, I’ve wanted to give up so often. I get annoyed with what feels like serial obsessions, then I remember that it’s a blessing to have this drive.
People told me an art degree was a waste of time, so I proved them wrong (and myself right) by working in various art and art-adjacent positions over my entire career. I just had my first solo gallery show, too!
People told me that I’d never do much with my music, but I toured with a band, have recorded tens of albums, and have even made an entire video game soundtrack.
People warned me about not being prepared to move to NYC; how it would spit me out— so I moved there anyway, without a plan. During my seventeen years, I thrived and achieved, and then moved back home, on my own accord, not because it spit me out. Onto the next big adventure.
What is your absolute favorite meal?
My favorite meal is fresh fried fish. My dad would catch bass or bream, or crappie (pronounced crop-py). He’d filet them as soon as he got home and we’d have a fish fry. My dad has been an avid fisherman my whole life. Arkansas might be a land-locked state, but there are so many lush lakes and rivers around.
On a homemade gas burner, he’d set the huge pot, pour in the peanut oil, fry the hushpuppies or hot water cornbread, the fish filets and double-fry the fresh-cut french fries. My mom would fix the coleslaw and baked beans on the side.
It was a celebration of the day’s effort as much as it was a delicious and fun meal. We’d have the extended family over. Happy memories. It’s a meal I hope to have again someday, as I haven’t had it in many years because of mom’s illness. It won’t be the same, but I hope to make it a continuing family tradition.