Daily Prompt: Provoke

I had just finally managed to calm down from driving around, going nowhere, trying to get the rest of the unexpected bloodletting over within the too-familiar, protected, isolated confines of my car, only to come home, check my email, and find a message from my mother. It had, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with anything on my mind at this moment, but simply seeing her name highlighted in my inbox like a beacon prompted me to burst right back into tears. At least all my mascara for the day is already gone by now; I still hate how puffy my face gets.

When I was younger, and clashing the most violently (emotionally and verbally, that is) with my mother, I was extremely determined to never become like her. This is, of course, one of the ultimate teenage tropes that’s likely existed since the dawn of humanity, but when you are young and feeling everything at your highest intensity, it feels both very rebellious and extremely important. (I imagine this is why I, along with so many others, was so unexpectedly moved by Lady Bird, recently. The tone of those mother-daughter fights was so exacting and familiar — coupled with the very pointed and accurate outsider rendering of what it’s like to grow up on the poor side surrounded by so many bizarrely exotic rich kids — I felt deeply shaken by it.)

I would not be like her. I was positive — growing up under the burdens laid on a gifted child, always being told about all the great things I would supposedly someday do (none of which have ever come to pass, of course; do they ever?) — that I was smart and resourceful enough to make sure of this.

In reality, of course, I get many of my best qualities from my mother. I certainly inherited her self-sacrificing nature, particularly when it comes to bending over backwards for the sake of those I care about, whether or not that’s even the good or right thing to do in a given situation; the general lack of a vetting system to go with it comes from her, too. But that is a stowaway risk inescapably bound to big-heartedness, and accepting that, as I’ve grown older — about both her and myself — has become easier. What I struggle with more, these days, is forgiveness. Not of her, either; no matter how much we fought back then, or how crazy she could drive me, I’m old enough now to recognize she sacrificed as much as she possibly could simply to protect and elevate my life, in the hopes that it could be greater, happier, more fulfilling than hers. (She continues to find ways to do this, even now that I’m in my thirties.)

She did not want me to struggle, like her. She did not want me to be trapped, like her. She did not want me to end up alone, like her.

Unfortunately, I also recognize how badly I failed her, in those hopes, completely across the board.

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My mother’s hands (2013).

Younger me was certain I would make it further in my education, and knew it was expected of me. I did not: my mother only ever took one college course (I believe it was French, at UCLA), during her earliest years in California, and never finished. I dropped out of (community) college a mere 3 credits (a single online course) away from graduating. Arguably, one could say that’s even worse. I wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think.

Younger me was adamant I would never end up stuck in a soul-sucking office job like hers, constantly fighting to meet the demands and satisfy the flighty, shallow whims of an endless string of horrible bosses, as she’s now done for over 30 years. Once it became clear, in the past decade or so, that the professional avenue she had chosen was nowhere near as “safe” or protected as she (and so many others) had always believed, I certainly was not happy, but some small, ugly little part of me did feel at least slightly, quietly justified in never accepting a similar job, though by now I’ve been working over half my life. (There were other reasons: it’s not work that I’m suited to, I’m far less flexible in what I can tolerate at work and separating it from my overall mental health than she is., etc..) I had stuck to my guns, and always (where possible, which it sometimes wasn’t) taken jobs that I wanted to do, whether they paid well or not (and they usually didn’t), that allowed me to keep my creativity alive. At the very least, I was never anyone’s secretary; I had drawn that line in the sand, and would never cross it. I knew she felt regret at having given up on art and writing when she was younger, before fully devoting her career to administrative work, however well compensated it might have been. I thought to myself: I will not have those regrets.

Does that make it ironic, then, that I see now that I did in fact end up just like her, merely in the one way I could not have anticipated? I’m sure it does. I struggle to stay afloat just as much as she does, so we’ll (perhaps generously) call that one a wash. I am trapped, like her, though not by my work. I am alone, like her, and in almost exactly the same way. And I suspect, if I were ever to admit this to her, that would be the one thing she would have wished the hardest for me to avoid. But I didn’t, of course. I am trapped by, and remain alone because of, nearly the very same thing that she was, and still is. Even if there is no possible defense for such a thing, I’m still astonished by the breadth of the blind spot I had been operating under for so long. I genuinely believed that, in achieving what I have, I had escaped what she wished for me never to have to bear.

I’ve achieved plenty, too. I’m still managing to keep a roof over my head. I have a stable job (much more so than hers, which at this point I just wish I could share somehow; she is reaching an age where I seriously fear where, or even if, she might find more solid ground ever again), and it’s one that I genuinely enjoy. I’m embarking on an exciting and creative new journey, too; one that feels very much like the culmination of something I was meant to do long ago, but had forgotten. I love my city, and my friends. I have done a good job of making my own home in the world. I have support and rewarding relationships around me. I have yet, still, to have a bad day this year. Even today, I can’t log as a bad day, because I seem to really have rescued myself from whatever hole I kept burying myself in last year; it was just (deeply) upsetting. But I’ve gotten through it, I’ve finally stopped crying, and tomorrow will be fine, too. I trust, finally, that I haven’t lost anything irreplaceable; only my one remaining secret, and a considerable chunk of my already rather small stores of pride.

But despite all of this, I was not spared sharing her most enduring pain, in ending up caught by my own. And I do struggle with forgiving myself, even now. I don’t know how to forgive all the arrogant and shortsighted assumptions I made about her, and myself, back then, knowing now how wrong they really were. (Yes, I was young and dumb. I’m not sure how adequate an excuse that is.) I don’t know how to forgive myself for expressing things I never meant to let out into the world, which I could not protect myself from, any better than she could protect me, and not for lack of furious trying on both our parts. Funnily enough, I am now the very same age that she was when she was either doubling down, or realizing and accepting it was already too late; I know now how she must have felt. Five years is a very long time to punish yourself for anything, no matter how foolish or pointless that thing may be, but that did not stop me, and still does not stop me even now. I am, after all, much more likely to cry out of anger or frustration than I am out of sadness, though in this case it’s that awful mix of all three. I suppose what this all means is that, as much as I’ve already been inspired by her tremendous continued survival, I must continue to look to her for understanding how, exactly, one lives with themselves this way.

I don’t hate myself. I’m all right. Often, I’m quite happy. It’s just… I genuinely believed, for a long time — in part, I see now, because she did — that I could’ve been so much better.

I did want to be so much better, Mom. You had only me, and you deserved better. I know you wanted that, too. But I also know how little wanting or hoping has anything to do with what you get, in the end.

And I am sure, at least, she would not need me to remind her of this, either. She already knows.

 

via Daily Prompt: Provoke

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How do I work this?

I had a thing, for a good portion of my years in school, all the way up through high school — likely influenced at least somewhat by my godfather, a highly sought after architect of, at that time, the richest homeowners in the country — about occasionally but obsessively designing my own imaginary house. Thinking back now, I’m not entirely sure where the desire to do so came from: I loved my childhood house. (And I do mean I loved it; I was fiercely devoted to it in a way I’ve never felt about any other place I’ve lived, observed and lived within it with deep affection and attachment for as long as I could remember, photographed it obsessively once I knew we’d be moving out after 17 years living there.)

doors

Doors (Carmel Valley, 19 April 2004). When I say I documented my childhood house obsessively, before we left (June 2004), I mean it sincerely. There was a light that lived in that house, which I did my best to capture — my father imparted to me the importance of the meaning of photography, which is “to paint with light” — but have never encountered anywhere else I’ve visited or lived. I’m always looking for it, but I have never found it again. I don’t imagine I ever will. The only place it still lives is in a few achingly earnest photographs I took when I was 17 and mourning.

Maybe it was just one more way of exercising my visual thinking acuity, or just another doodling outlet or outlet for my little Lego-loving ass… Maybe it was just a little girl who’d never known what it was like to have money trying to imagine a world where you get to create your own living space, the way they entice you to do in home style magazines and those early demo computers in hardware stores: the way rich people do. It definitely is to blame for my long-lasting and bizarrely fierce dedication to the use of graphing paper. To this day, any time I move, I still create a scale model of the room I’ll be moving into, complete with loose pieces representing every piece of furniture, and plot it all out before I actually lift any boxes or hammer any nails in.

This past weekend, the landlord has been (finally) doing some sorely needed renovations on the main bathroom in our apartment, which meant all three of us needed to find somewhere else to shower for a few days, while the paint and new caulking dried. Thanks to a very fortunate bit of timing, another tenant in the building, who’d lived in one of the upstairs units, to the east side of the building, just moved out at the end of January; we were able to wheedle the landlord’s permission to leave the back door to the place open for a few days, so we could make use of the shower up there, in the now vacant unit. I’ve lived in this building for over four years now, but I’d never once ventured upstairs, or even into another one of the six or seven other units, until now. (The fact that I’m honestly not sure — still! — whether there are six or seven besides ours probably makes that fairly embarrassingly clear.)

Walking into that apartment for the first time the other day, I was a bit floored, and suddenly wished, in a way I hadn’t done in many long years, that I could afford to live on my own. It reminded me of a game I once played with a childhood friend, where we’d run across the street from our neighborhood to the freshly built houses across the street — as San Diego expanded wildly in all directions and overbuilt itself into a sprawling suburban, traffic-ridden hell arguably worse than the bits of LA everyone bitches about the most — let ourselves into one of the three furnished model units the realtors always seemed to leave unlocked, and play dream house in them. But this, now, was somehow even better: this apartment here is, for the time being, blissfully empty. It’s a truly blank canvas.

It’s smaller overall, with fewer rooms — meant for one tenant (at most two), whereas we’re able to fit three into ours fairly well — and the bathroom itself, our point for having access to it now, is certainly smaller than ours. (No dedicated parking space either, so far as I know.) But… hardwood floors! Be still my heart. An A/C unit in the living room! Fewer rooms means they’re all at least somewhat larger, too, particularly the kitchen. Though the first thing I swooned at, even before the flooring, was the large picture windows facing out onto the main street. Sure, the bedroom is the closest to the street, but I sleep like the dead, so what do I care about road noise? Those windows are heavenly. There’s a ceiling fan in the bathroom, and their window isn’t painted shut! The air flow is divine. Then, of course, I turn to my right, and discover the walk-in closet, with its own window, and die a little inside. And, of course, fall a bit hopelessly in love with the whole thing.

It’s arguably a sillier fantasy now than it was when I was a little girl; pretending this great empty space is something I can furnish and arrange to my liking. At the rate I’m going, I’ll die never having had the luxury of living alone, let alone owning (or even renting) any property just for myself. Even considering it seems absurd. Still, for the first time since childhood, I know at least one little corner of my mind will be laying graphing paper gridding over those rooms in my mind, imagining what I could make of that fresh, open space, in that fantasy world that will never be, where it’s mine to do with whatever I want. Is it better or worse to be dreaming a little about a space that’s not only not entirely made up, for once, but that’s just a short trip up the stairs from where you already are? I’m honestly not sure.

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was…

 

via Daily Prompt: Permit

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What a choice for the daily prompt word this turned out to be; yesterday’s was “finite,” but that felt both too on-the-nose and too depressing to touch at the time. Right now, there is certainly a crescendo of noise crashing onto me: the noise of seemingly relentless, unfortunate change. It is slowly but surely growing too loud around me to hear much else.

I could detail more specifically why the past nine months have been such a difficult slog, but it would not be compelling reading, nor would it be particularly helpful; I already know what the reasons are. I tend to use writing as a cathartic and therapeutic exercise, at best, and so rehashing realities I have already faced feels tired and confined. This general excising of feeling, though, I do need; the poison has to come out somehow, usually by bleeding it out of oneself; it is painful, ugly, messy, and has to happen.

Given the latest batch of bad — unsurprising, but still bad — news that arrived today, I finally realized why this year, on the whole, has felt like such a struggle to merely survive: it started on a high note, and has gone almost entirely downward ever since, in spite of my best efforts to counter it wherever I can. My overall mental health has been much better, and I’ve adopted better habits relating to my health and habits, generally. As it continues to take over, with no turnaround in sight, I’ve attempted to make better use of my ever-expanding alone time. At the time, I took the positive beginning in January — which feels so long ago, now — as a sign that I had a good wave on which to start, and would allow it to buoy me forward, keeping myself more open to the good, and the positive. Thus far, however, all this has seemed to do is put me in a less prepared position for the bad that followed on its heels, as though I’ve been stupidly keeping my back to the waves out in the ocean of all that has hit me, and all that will follow; that continues to roll in like a tide with no turning.

My birthday is approaching in a couple of weeks, but I don’t care. I don’t do much to celebrate as a general rule as it is, but by this point I might have at least already tried to plan something for it, as in the past few years, but this year: no. I just do not care. Recognizing more clearly, today, that just about everything I came into this year either believing as somehow solid or secure, that I hoped for or wanted, or was looking forward to — both big and small — has slid away, if not disappeared entirely. The likely impending loss of my last remaining close family from easily reachable proximity is sort of just the icing on the cake. I wasn’t even surprised to read it; I just felt sad, and alone, and lost.

On the plus side, if I even can believe in such a thing for the time being: I have little, if nothing much, left to lose, at this point. So, if nothing else, there aren’t likely to be many more nasty surprises lurking around any more corners as the year drags on; it’s just more moving forward in the dark, toward nothing in particular. If it is a tunnel, which is a rather optimistic concept in itself, it’s become too long of one to see any light on the other side. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no way out on the other side, but even a pinprick of light at the moment would be welcome. Fall is coming, and the late part of the year is generally my favorite, but also brings with it difficulties of its own, mostly tied to memory, and as the days grow darker, I don’t have much faith in that black space opening for something brighter to break through. Maybe all I am able to do for now is continue to survive, and sustain some hope that things will look less bleak sometime in the future. Anything more specific than that only feels foolish from here.

I am young, and life is (generally, perhaps hopefully) long, but from the perspective of now, things look bleak, and I am so tired.

 

[To be deleted, I’m sure.]

 

via Daily Prompt: Crescendo

But it was mine in the first place/ so I’ll burn it to ash

Ash over sunrise (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

They called it, at the time — or at least one of the three fires that were boxing us in from north, east, and south — the Witch Fire. Looking back through my oldest journal, I realize it was almost exactly 10 years ago. I was still living with my mother, of course. I was still in college, though I wouldn’t be much longer. I already knew I wanted out of my hometown; I’d taken my first solo trip to Los Angeles a month prior, and fallen immediately in love with it. It would take me five more years, but I knew I had to get there. My hometown was burning on all sides but the ocean, and I figured, with the arrogance and cavalier attitude of youth, that it would either burn down with me trapped in it, or I would escape, and be free.

I had just turned 21. I had not fully abandoned my pursuit of a career in forensics yet, but I was on the cusp of it. This was around the time the idea that it was time to walk away began to really germinate in my brain, in fact, even if I hadn’t articulated it just yet. Time to throw it away, abandon my degree, move on, work past it, go somewhere else. I had not yet gotten my first bookstore job, but I would less than six months from then. That, of course, would become my real career, and eventually bring me here.

This post isn’t really about continuation, though; it’s more about its opposite, but I found the prompt to be a bit ironic when I saw it, for that very reason. I associate fire with decimation and rebirth, as most naturally do, and it’s come around again, with all that restlessness in the air it brings for me. There was ash on the hood of my car this morning, miles from where thousands of acres just outside Burbank burn. I took it as a timely sign to scrap some things, at least for now. Some ideas, some wishes, some projects, some mistaken areas of focus; a little bit of everything. One or two I may come back to sometime in the future; one is too late, for the time being, and another it is arguably far too soon to address properly. Some may never have a right time or place, and should just be allowed to burn away. But I often have a hard time letting go of things, so by the time the fires will hopefully be contained, they may not be quite gone. Time will tell, as always.

Ten years ago, I couldn’t sleep, much like this week, though the reasons were different. (Now: financial stress, general anxiety, interpersonal problems, a horrendous heat wave, and two straight days of horribly timed power outages forcing me out of my home, scraping together what I can until it all blows over.) Then: there were three separate, large and growing fires, all moving toward my mother and I; one moving north from near the border, one moving west from the inland hills, and another moving south from not far from where I live now. We were on evacuation notice for three days, our cars already packed up, wondering how we would deal with the cat, and where we could go. All the fire had to do, at the worst point, was catch the right (wrong) wind and hop a single freeway, and we would be toast. We were just waiting on that call, which could come at any time (back when we still had a land line, though even then, calls like these were really one of the only remaining reasons to still have one). The air was so thick with ash that even stepping outside for a moment or two made your eyes water and your throat constrict.

Still, I felt agitated, and weary of a near-constant vigil watching the news for updates. My mother was trying to nap in her room. I snuck outside, a bandana stretched over the lower half of my face, and got all scraped up climbing the ten foot brick wall that surrounded our condo complex to perch on the edge of it to watch the sun rise. I waited, breathing shallowly, in the eerie silence, on my moment. No one was awake who hadn’t already left for a shelter, and the birds and coyotes had all gone. The near-blinding light began to creep over the edges of the hills to the east, painting a momentarily oblivion-white edge along their jagged lines, before rising slowly through the unnaturally heavy sky, and I snapped the above photograph.

Later in the day, the sky was so dark with ash and smoke, the sun was red in a permanently dusky sky, so dark and strangely colored it could have been any hour of the day at all; the illusion of time felt shattered.

Midday sun in fire season (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

I eventually made my way back inside, coughing. I would soon begin to change the course of my life, to burn to ash what had been my focus for some years, and hope to start fresh. In much smaller ways, it feels a bit like I’m doing that again now, if only in my mind this time. The silence around me now is of a very different kind, and has enveloped me for entirely different reasons, but it’s unsettling in much the same way. But change is change is change; rebirth of any kind only rises from ashes, so something has to be sacrificed to the flames. Back then, we sat inside, and we waited. I am waiting on something different now. I’m curious to see what sort of sun rises on me tomorrow.

 

via Daily Prompt: Continue

Neighbors

(Today’s WordPress prompt is slowly. I made my up this old street, through these memories, and through these photos, especially: slowly.)

I think back on these people now as the first and last neighbors I will ever have. I simply have no reason to anticipate ever inhabiting a neighborhood like the one I grew up in again. There will certainly never be a day when I own a house, and the neighborhood I was raised in was comprised entirely of them. The people who surrounded me as I grew, who I came to understand and recognize as my neighbors, were a part of that environment, and do not exist outside of it; they are only of that place and time. Since then, I’ve only resided in apartments, or my mother’s condo. She knows some of her neighbors now, but they are not mine. Even in the six long years I lived there with her, in much the same way I never made the room in that condo my own — never finished unpacking many of my possessions, never organized things in a more pleasing manner, never hung anything on the walls — those people were never my neighbors; they were hers.

eyes

I drove slowly up and around that cul-de-sac, and was overcome by the knowledge that there was no one there who would know me. The sole remaining family from the 20-odd ones I once knew was not at home; the garage and windows were closed, no cars parked out front, no signs of life within. Even if there had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have stopped my car, let alone gotten out, walked up to the door, and knocked. If the man who used to fondly call me “Nori” were there, or the woman whose young son used to do his homework under my watchful eye had been at home, I don’t expect either one would have recognized me. The last they had seen me, I was a fresh high school graduate; tall and still rather rail thin, with the only curves to my appearance still lingering around my face. My hair was long, blonde, and messy, down or habitually tied up, stuffed away at the nape of my neck. It was nearing half my lifetime ago, and I would have been a stranger. Nothing of me was left.

I drove a slow lap, marking each house as I passed it. Next door to us, one of the few single-story homes on the block, was Irene’s house. She had long since moved away — I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive, a realization that filled me with a mixture of guilt and dismay — but I could only think of the house as hers. Hers was the living room in which I had sat on the area rug, petting her old mutt whose name I had forgotten, but whose soft, matted fur I remembered still; hers was the kitchen sink in which I had washed out her watercolor paint brushes after watching her fill a canvas with a precision I would never have, longing to be a painter myself, knowing I never would be. Hers was always the first door I knocked on as a Girl Scout, knowing she would be delighted just to see me on her front step. Hers was the husband who died when I was only four; who I knew would die the day before, standing in our guest room — which would later become my mother’s, after my parents separated — looking out the window in the late afternoon light, seeing him standing in the driveway.  My parents hadn’t yet attempted to explain death to me, as much as you can ever explain it to a child, but standing in that room, looking down at him, without him seeing me, not even knowing he was sick, I knew he would not see him again.

The next door down had housed a family from Switzerland, so naturally my father had immediately befriended them, despite their having come from the German part of the country, and my father coming from the French; his nationalism never wavered in the face of any other factors. The father was odd, but he is the only one I remember, because I had worked for him for a summer, attempting to organize his extraordinary mess of a home office. Struggling to alphabetize his folders in their clunky filing cabinets, often having to guess at the first two or three letters of words, because his handwriting was all but illegible, and if I ever guessed incorrectly, he never told me. From one day to the next, he would change his mind about how he preferred his books to be arranged; one day by author, the following by title, other days by subject, and so on. He was paying me, and I have always loved books, so I didn’t mind moving them around all over again. I could sense I was glimpsing the remaining fragments of an unusual and perhaps extraordinary life, given the evidence in those drawers of the places he had been and the things he had done. I remember he was fond of me for being a reader, and for playing the guitar, which he had once taught himself. Apparently that was all it took, though I could never say I knew him, let alone the rest of his family, well. Of his wife’s face I have only a vague impression now, framed by her short brown hair.

The next house was the Day’s, and the aforementioned last standing of the original families, or so my mother had told me. Their older daughter Allison’s room was where I had once sat and listened to “Hummer” for the first time on her cassette, on one of the few occasions she ever acknowledged my presence in the house, before I was old enough to look after her younger brother Tyler. Thinking of him made me ache now; the last I’d heard of him was that he had fallen away from his family and into heavy drug use. I still could only think of him as the best behaved child I had ever babysat, and my favorite. I looked after him long enough that we established a routine; the same bus that I had once taken to the same grade school would stop at the end of the street, drop him off, he would walk up and let himself in the front door. I would be sitting in the living room, doing my homework, waiting for the sound of his key in the lock, and his endearingly, extremely low voice announcing “Hello,” to me and the house. He would make himself a bowl of Rice Krispie’s cereal, with a heaping spoonful of brown sugar on top, watch cartoons for a half hour on the floor between my feet, then go upstairs to his room to do his homework. He would bring it to me to check over when he was finished, and then ask my permission to go outside and play. The house was situated in such a way on the street that when he did, I could see him through the living room windows, and make sure he was safe. For a brief period his parents had attempted to use Ritalin to curb his attention deficit disorder, which apparently caused him to struggle in school, but all it did — and this hurt to remember, too — was turn him into a shell of a person, all personality, energy, and feeling removed. This experiment didn’t last long, thankfully, but I couldn’t help but think of it now, passing his old home, and wondering how that might have informed the place he found himself in now, and I had to turn away.

The next house had never had children attached to it, as far as I ever knew, and as a result, I never knew the inhabitants well. On a small street with 26 kids apart from me, it remained quiet and separate. The next belonged to my childhood best friend.

Josh had been born almost exactly a month before me, and his mother and mine were friends — and later, the church-going kind. Dawn often played Christian rock cassettes in her huge blue minivan when driving us to school some mornings, when one of us was too late to make the bus. They had us play together as babies while they talked in the evenings, and I do not remember a time, as a child, that I didn’t know him, his sisters, his parents, his backyard, his house. It all seemed to exist as simply a phantom extension of mine, as if the four houses between ours were not really there. His much older half-sister was a model, and a former Chargers cheerleader. His younger sister, Elisha, was a tremendous brat. His father was our baseball coach, when we were a little older. Dawn was the fiercest Tetris opponent I ever played, and I only ever managed to beat her once. Their garage never served as one for as long as I can remember; it had been carpeted, outfitted with a couch, shelving, and laundry room amenities, and the garage door was only ever closed at night, after the last member of the family had gone to bed; the rest of the day, kids in the neighborhood were free to wander in and out freely. The only video games I ever played as a child were played there, never having owned a gaming system myself. We played with his Batman figures and little green army men on the floor; we ran through the house playing extremely rough tag when left alone in the house, searched out junk food in the pantry, and watched crap on TV. We listened to comedy bits on cassette in his room, and climbed out his window to sit on the roof above the garage, which my mother never knew (and probably would have killed me for). We raced, bobsled and luge style, on his skateboards down the incline in the street, flying around the bend leading out to the bigger road, somehow not breaking anything or killing ourselves, ruining the soles of our sneakers, when we bothered to wear them at all.

His father had dragged out a regulation height basketball hoop to the head of the cul-de-sac — long gone now, of course — and we would play street hockey, HORSE, and small, short, half-court pickup games out in that communal circle outside his driveway. Without the hoop in the center, the street seemed lonely and empty, now. The yards were all different, too, and that in its own way felt like a loss. I had spent so many afternoons and nights, running back and forth between our houses, through the front yards, to my mother’s chagrin, so often, and so precisely, that I had worn with my long, athletic strides on my sure (usually bare) feet a perfect path between bushes, patches of dead grass, driveway, and front garden wall. I ran it so often I could have done it blind, but by now that was long since erased, too.

Next to Josh’s place was one that had housed a few families over the years, but I only really remembered Jaqueline, who I had tutored in reading when I was 12 and she was seven. Her parents ran a salsa company on the other side of the border, where they had moved from, and would often bring back baskets of the best green apples I have ever tasted. One year they were the house to host the block Christmas party, and, wanting me to learn something from her for a change, she taught me 16 standard Christmas carols on their piano. She seemed just as proud of me for playing them at the party that night as I was of her for all the progress she had made, though I would never play the piano again.

The most changed yard on the block, I noticed, was the one that had belonged to Chris’s family, another young boy I had looked after, and probably the next best behaved after Tyler. I had him to thank for becoming a fan of the Harry Potter books, as one night in the summer of ’99, he asked me to read the first chapter of the first book to him when he went to bed, and I stayed up to read the rest of the book before his parents came home. If I was looking after him on a Saturday night, I’d let him stay up late and we would watch SNICK. The best part of his house, however, was the humongous bush that had been planted in the front yard; a bush so huge, everyone had assumed for years it was a large tree with very low branches. On summer nights, after afternoons filled with water balloon fights and NERF gun wars, all the kids would drag various broken down cardboard boxes and pieces of old furniture into the darkness and play flashlight tag. The spotter would always climb up into that bush as high as they dared, armed with the high-powered camping flashlight, while the rest of us scrambled from one driveway at the crest of the street to the next, hunkering down together in bunches to avoid the light sweeping over us.

Most of the other houses on the opposite side of the upper half of the street I didn’t know well; the children who lived in them were younger, the parents not as close to mine. I’d recognize all of them during holiday block parties, but I don’t recall their names now.

Just across from ours, though, was Bill and Alice’s. It was the largest lot of property on the street, and Alice had taken full advantage of this, transforming the backyard into the finest garden I’ve ever seen, of the caliber that could’ve been — and was, at times — featured in a magazine. There were massive trees, rows upon rows of rose bushes, dozens of flowers whose names I never learned, patches of space dedicated to growing tomatoes, strawberries, and every type of herb; stone footpaths, even a couple of benches to sit on. She would let me come over whenever she was home, and I would often play around in the flowers, when I wasn’t sketching them. One afternoon I spent hours attempting a full picture of the entire garden, breaking all artistic rules of space and perspective to cram a sort of warped interpretation of a large place that seemed truly magical to me onto a single sheet of paper. She framed it and put it on the wall of their library, where Bill, a well-known local author, had put together a wonderful collection of books.

fluffy

Next to them was the house that my first cat had come from, where Kris the real estate agent had once lived, who spent her off time rescuing boxes of kittens from shelters, raising them until they were old enough to be given away to good homes. After she left, the Jones family moved in, who I often pet sat for when they would go out of town; happily looking after their big, dumb Labrador, their skittish, soft-as-a-cloud chinchilla, and their oldest son’s python.

A couple more childless houses I never saw the inside of much followed, then came Alex’s. As Josh and I grew older and grew apart, Alex moved to the street, and became my closest (female) friend in his place. Like me, she was a tomboy, though more brash and reckless. Though I didn’t come close to feeling anything like love until I was much older, I developed an embarrassing crush on her older brother, Dan, who had a garage band, and used to invite me to sing when they would play. I sang Fiona Apple songs when I was still a bit too young to appreciate their content, because I could mimic her closely, and wished I were older than I were; even then, wished someone might notice me. (He didn’t, of course. For much the same reasons why I’ve never been the recipient of flowers, jewelry, anonymous letters, or any gesture even mildly romantic — when I was younger, let alone now — I remained as much under his radar as that of anyone else, anywhere I went.) Fortunately, the crush didn’t have much potency to it, and didn’t last. Alex’s was the tiny back yard in which I first experimented with putting any effort into my appearance, attempted in any way to be girly. She would style my hair, put make-up on me, and we’d photograph each other as if we were models. We made silly short movies on her father’s camcorder, an activity that came to an abrupt end when, under her dramatic direction, I fell backwards out her bedroom window onto the roof of the garage, cracking three roof tiles with the force of my spine slamming into them. We would send each other “mail;” hand writing short, almost pointless letters in made up, pre-teen girl code, running up and down the street and stuffing them in one another’s mailboxes, giggling as one of us raised the red flags, so the other could look out her window and see there was something waiting.

wall

ground cover

There are more houses on the block, and one more down toward the corner, but none of them hold any lasting memory for me. It is just the right time of year to drive back through here; just before Halloween, when all the yard decorations have come out. Living on a cul-de-sac full of kids, within a much larger, circular street that housed even more, was prime territory for enjoying my favorite holiday. We all ran around in groups — my parents away on their anniversary dinner — knowing which houses were the best (particularly the woman at the end of the outer street who cleverly gave out cans of Hansen’s soda) for what sort of candy, which had haunted houses hiding in their garages, which yards we could tear through without being yelled at. I was strangely reassured to see that one patch of solid grass remained exactly where I remembered it, one I remembered running along with Alex for years, on our way to the housing development that was coming up across the main street, where we would sneak into the three furnished model homes when realtors weren’t around, coming up with elaborate fantasy lives that only existed then and there.

houseI circled back around and finally stopped at the place I’d saved for last: my old house. The front yard had been rendered nearly unrecognizable; a gangly, garish palm tree, of all things, now towered over it.

eucalyptus

All the grass had been torn out, and the beautiful eucalyptus trees that had been planted just before I was born, that I’d watched grow with me to tower and fill with murders of crows, had been torn out just after we’d sold it. The hillside looked bare and wrong without them, but the wall surrounding the backyard was exactly as I remembered it.

A five-and-a-half foot high wall of clay brick, I had stubbornly begun climbing it every chance I got, long before I was tall enough to see over the top, running along its narrow edge, terrifying my mother but never falling, sitting upon it and reading, blowing bubbles, watching the cars and people — the world — go by. I pictured the yard behind it, and could almost see it; the patchy grass my mother would drag our plastic kitchen chairs out onto to lay beach towels under and over to create a fort for me to hide out and read in, the budding ground cover my father had painstakingly planted once it became clear grass would never survive in the dry soil, the little rocks my cat loved to roll in when they were heated by the afternoon sun, the rose bush in the corner where my first dog was buried.

The morning he died was the first — and one of only three times to this day — I had ever seen my father cry. It was Easter Sunday morning, when I was six, and while I sat at the coffee table in the den, my knees curled up under the wood my father had crafted — a place I spent thousands of hours making art over the years, producing so much of it my parents affectionately nicknamed me “fire hazard” — several of our neighbors gave up their holiday morning church or party plans, left their own children to be watched by others, came over with shovels and a wheelbarrow and, without even being asked, helped us commit a small misdemeanor, and bury our dog. It was a wordless, selfless kindness the like of which, when I was that young, I had never before seen, and have seen very rarely since. When I think of what it means to call yourself someone’s neighbor, I think of that morning.

doorThe paint colors of the house itself — white and blue-gray — were unchanged, but one of the owners after us had painted over the distinctive red door. It had been a point of pride of my father’s, after he’d stubbornly fought the neighborhood council for months to get the color approved, and had always been used as a reference to anyone who came to visit: “It’s the blue and white house on the corner. Look for the red door.”

kitchen

kitchen2

I sat in my idling car, my eyes roving over every part of the façade, bombarded by memory. I saw my bedroom window, the window of my father’s home office, the living room window our Christmas tree’s lights once winked out of from between the curtains. The garage door behind which my father’s photo lab was built, where I’d learned to first use a camera, how to paint with light.

I thought back to my final weeks in the house, during which I photographed it obsessively; I was sure somehow I would forget everything about it once I stepped out the door, and wanted to record every detail. The living room carpet I’d built villages of Polly Pockets across, and rolled all over with my cat; the bar area that had never actually functioned as a bar, and ultimately filled with boxes of school and art papers and tracing paper animation studies; the kitchen counter my mother taught me to bake at; the sliver of parquet floor between the kitchen and den where I played elaborate games of marbles, as only a bizarre only child like me could have concocted, listening to my father’s records; the dust motes that would linger near the hallway banister upstairs as the sun set.

sunset3

sunset2

The bedroom that was mine; the room I did my beloved schoolwork in, the room I used our first home computer in and wrote horrendous fanfiction on as a teenager, the room I recovered from severe injury in, the room I looked out of in silence at the sky at sunset, my room, my room. My room. After leaving it, I never made a space mine again until over 10 years had passed.

Strangely, as I pulled away, my last thought was of the photo my father had taken of me, as I was going around attempting to preserve everything, not understanding that some part of me was trying to preserve the memories better, too; knowing my family and my home were splintering around me, in a way that would never be recovered. Things eventually would become better in other ways — my parents would get along better, my mother would be happier again, I would find a city to call mine — but I didn’t know this then. Maybe he also knew that, once we moved out, he and I would never have the sort of relationship as a family as we did under that roof; from this point on, we would exist in each other’s lives only as visitors. I would have no home in that city again.

17-4

He took the camera he had given me out of my hands at the top of the stairs, as the sun set, trying to catch the same perfect light I saw filtering through the windows behind the hanging lamp, and took the last photograph he ever took of me. I am tired out from weeks of packing up 17 years of a life, and my eyes are a little wet, though he cannot see this behind my glasses, nor would I ever have let him; my hair, uncharacteristically, is down in loose, messy waves around my shoulders; my smile is fleeting and sad. I know that when I take it back from him, I will walk down the stairs for the last time, and drive away, never to return. I look as if I might disappear from the picture if you look long enough. I look as though I am already gone.

A dear friend of mine is very fond of this piece, and when I came across the photos from the time period mentioned toward the end of it while organizing some files on one of my external hard drives, and though I’m no writer, I thought I might as well post it here, too, and include some of them. I realized, while browsing through them for the first time in many years, how closely my younger self had managed to capture the feel of my old house and life; I focused on small things I wanted to remember that might be less likely to remain than larger memories, details much to do with the way certain types of light during certain times of day came through which curtains, or struck which wall — the light in that house; it was so beautiful, especially during the golden hour. I even photographed myself a little, in a very specifically teenage-girl sort of way (bizarre, angled close-ups; it’s a common theme, when young women are attempting to figure out exactly what we really look like, coming of age in a society that objectifies and examines us so harshly and closely). Somehow, younger me knew exactly what sort of strangely personal images I’d want to revisit over a decade later, which I found oddly comforting to discover.

(Originally written December 2015, referencing an October 2015 visit to my hometown that included an impromptu solo drive through my childhood neighborhood. Personal photographs from April-June 2004.)

Inspiration, of a sort

I promised someone dear to me that I would continue to try to write more here, so, as it’s been a few weeks since I last did, I figured I’d give it another shot today.

A particular word has been lingering in my mind since yesterday evening, and part of me wondered whether the one in a million odds of WordPress’s daily word challenge corresponding with it might come into play, but of course they did not. However, the word that was assigned today ties in with it, at least slightly, or enough that I can excuse using one word to segue into another. So, I’ll count this one as a response to the daily prompt, because: why the hell not?

The word that’s been on my mind since last night is cherish.

Per dictionary.com, “cherish” means: (1) to hold or treat as dear; feel love for; (2) to care for tenderly; nurture; (3) to cling fondly or inveterately to. 

There was a plan in place for last night, and basically nothing went according to it, naturally. I didn’t leave work when I expected to (though that ended up being a good thing), I began feeling dizzy and unwell on the Metro, the bus didn’t stop where it should have, we ended up on the wrong side of the damn river. And yet, despite everything managing to sort of up and go to hell in a hand basket in less than an hour, my dear friend sat across from me on the bus on the ride back, put his hand warmly on my knee, and said, “I think you’re wonderful.” Clearly we were not meant to brave the headache of a bunch of strangers for some downtown theater performance piece; we were supposed to stay in and recharge each other’s batteries instead. As we did, and I drifted in and out of a doze, and watched his pulse jumping delicately in his throat while he dozed off, too, hearing it under my ear, that was how I felt: cherished. I think it may be one of the best feelings in the world that anyone can gift another. I would trade any hectic, headachey, roundabout bus ride — and a whole lot more — to earn it, and keep it.

What the hell does this have to do with the actual word of the day? As Fox Mulder might say of a suspected vampire’s untied shoelaces: I’m getting to it.

To cite dictionary.com again, epitome means: a person or thing that is typical of or possesses to a high degree the features of a whole class.

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of occasionally blogging about specific memories, after spending so much time sorting through old artwork and photographs. Something like a visual thought exercise; discovering as I go what certain images and memories might prompt me to write. (There are other photographs I would like to write about, such as a small, semi-successful, semi-disastrous, black and white street series I shot this past winter, though for the moment they feel too personal to broach. And while there is plenty of material I continue to store up in my head and squirrel away in my notes about a series I plan to shoot about people in the bizarre little worlds of their cars, and how that relates to California and growing up in and being inescapably a part of such a predominant car culture… I have to actually shoot those photos first. So.) One I could start with might be this one.

kite

Let’s go fly a kite…

This photo epitomizes the idea (ideal?) of a southern California childhood, I would think. I am four or five years old in it, very small and mousey, and very blonde and sun-kissed in appearance. I am standing on the beach, learning how to fly a kite, in a sundress. What you can’t see in the frame: my maternal grandfather is there with me. This is the last visit he will make to my hometown, along with my grandmother, that I have any memory of (the only other was just after I was born) before they will both die, less than a year later, before I turn six. Both my father’s parents already deceased before I was even born, this meant I grew up without much sense of what the typical extended family was. I only had my parents and myself. The kite, of course, has Ariel on it.

I remember my mother tying my hair into pigtails like this often. Apart from her occasionally snipping off a few split ends, I didn’t have it cut properly until I was 12, meaning it grew very long and wavy, eventually reaching my waist, and she was always trying to find ways to keep it out of my face. I remember the ties she would use; little elastic bands with big, round, multicolored plastic balls on the ends. Pinks, reds, blues, and yellows haloing my head. I remember her hands gently pulling the strands back from my face as she swept it up to twist between them, behind me, where I couldn’t see. I remember that cotton sundress, that it was one of my favorites. I remember which part of which beach we are on. The sand between my toes, almost too hot to stand on, my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder, teaching me just the right amount of slack to feed the kite so it would stay in the air, so it could climb higher. The kite flew so high that day that my father took a picture of it, and even with the lens fully zoomed in, it’s barely a speck in the sky.

And so… the photo: the epitome of a California childhood. The person I wrote this for, apart from myself: the epitome of someone I cherish, and who cherishes me. (I told you I’d get there eventually, didn’t I?)