An American Tail

Boy, did this one dredge up a lot of thoughts in me. A LOT.

an-american-tail-images-8a228e09-bf20-4417-83ec-ad2dc7f4984

I hadn’t seen this film, in full, since I was a child. I know it always affected me strongly back in the day, even if it wasn’t my favorite of Bluth’s (that honor still probably belongs to Secret of NIMH), but I honestly can’t imagine a more affecting — or upsetting — time to be seeing it again than our current climate. And frankly, as the child of an immigrant (albeit a voluntary one) who got into trouble at school due to discomfort with the entire concept of being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, my own relationship to — and discomfort with — America and patriotism has always been… complicated.

an-american-tail-images-8cb763ac-86b4-4658-ae49-216d17201b3

It’s just… it’s so goddamn hopeful about America, it was painful to take in now. It’s a film about the plight of refugees so earnest and blatantly (and deservedly) sympathetic that I honestly can’t imagine it being made today. In one scene, Fievel is literally caged by the cats, and watching that as American border agents are caging living children was almost too much to bear. I found myself thinking back on Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece MAUS more than once — a parallel it’s tough not to draw (and apparently inspired some litigation at the time of the film’s release), given the presence of evil cats killing mice; in this case, the only difference, really, is that the cats aren’t literal Nazis — the mice are still (Russian) Jews. They arrive at the port immigration authority, and their family names are changed; they’re then confronted by opportunistic vultures lying in wait, taking advantage of the poor and desperate new arrivals wherever they can, to put them to work in America’s longest, most successful grift: cheap labor off the backs of its most hopeful dreamers. The set palette, between Russia and America, it’s worth noting (and I’m sure is no accident) does not change; New York is just as grimy, dangerous, crowded, and threatened by fire and death as the homeland they left.

Don Bluth is a filmmaker I’ve always had a complex relationship with. The films of his I love, I love deeply. (Hell, I even have a soft spot for the duds; Rock-a-Doodle is like a drug-addled fever dream from an Elvis fanatic on acid, but that didn’t keep me from watching it more than once, back in the day. Thumbelina is a mess, but it’s so beautiful to look at, I was charmed by it anyway.) I believe I saw NIMH first, at about age 4 or 5, and it blatantly traumatized me, I know — it gave me recurring, vivid, horrific nightmares — and yet I returned to it again and again.

77f87d8c70c42e036112ac287d4ff02d--anastasia-movie-princess-anastasia

Animation is an art form I have always adored and revered, mostly due to my deepest childhood dream of being an animator. I discovered I lacked the discipline as an artist to ever achieve such a thing long ago, but animated films still hold a power over me that no other genre of film does, and I love film. In a way, it could be argued they’re film, as a storytelling medium, in its purest form. There are visuals and scenes in animated films that never fail to move me to tears, and have influenced me in so many unconscious ways. I’m fairly sure I’ve been dyeing my hair red for nearly half my life now mostly because I was more obsessed by Ariel than any other fictional character during my formative years; seeing this film again, I can’t help but wonder whether I ultimately picked out a blue newsboy cap recently because it’s the color Fievel wore.

amulet-glowing

Bluth’s films include a darkness that no other animator really dared explore for audiences including such young children. He isn’t the greatest animator of my time, in my book — I would personally give that honor to Miyazaki — but when he succeeded, he produced the stuff of unmistakable brilliance. The widow Brisby holding literal fire in her hands, upon finding her real self and true courage in order to save her children, marked me as a young girl; Littlefoot’s mother’s death — and the entire theme of inescapable death in All Dogs Go to Heaven — articulated the inevitable end of life to me at my most impressionable in a more profound way than any other fictional tales I can recall. Hell, even Anastasia — handicapped though it may be by Bluth’s growing over-reliance on awkward Rotoscoping in his animation — is irresistible to me; I will belt the fuck out of “Journey to the Past” and feel like I could do just about anything while doing it (and part of me always wanted to steal Anya’s newsboy cap-wearing, cropped-reddish hairstyle, too).

secretnimh

Bluth’s violence is direct in a deeply un-Disney way, and I often wonder how much he pushed himself toward that darkness after walking out of those studios (taking half of Disney’s animation staff with him, arguably the greatest coup he ever achieved). There is visible, stark blood in them, which you will find in almost no other works by his contemporaries. There are knives, daggers, swords, needles glinting in the dark, stabbing into lab rats, bones of cannibalized characters litter the ground; the terrors and pain he animates look real. (The huge robotic mouse they build to scare off the cats onto the ship? Holy shit, I had somehow forgotten how terrifying it is.)

hqdefault

Bluth’s nightmares are the stuff of genuine nightmares, honest to god hellscapes — when they literally go through actual hell in All Dogs Go to Heaven (apparently a tamer version of the original cut, if you can even imagine what it might have otherwise been; I never dared to), it will fuck a child up. The water that washes Fievel off the boat to America, that floods the old New York streets and sewers is not blue; it’s dark and dirty and appears bottomless; it really does look like something you would drown in.

d0de93ae95f01d29f87f8b5c5dc96db4

This applies to the grief in them as well: Disney films are full of missing (typically presumed dead) mothers; The Land Before Time has you witness the mother’s actual death. And all of this, within animation, is as unique as it is visionary. Bluth did many things, not all of them great, but he certainly never shied away from confronting the children in his audience with true fear, darkness, or sadness.

libertyamericantail

“Ah, America. What a place!” Fuck me, but this line made me want to cry (and it repeats later!). The most painterly, loving frames in the entire film appear in its closing, when the camera pans slowly, reverently around the freshly built Statue of Liberty, still resplendent in all her original, pre-oxodized copper glory, shining like a true beacon in the sunrise: “Isn’t she beautiful?” She was. She still is — even as a brave black woman, an immigrant herself from the Congo, scaled her feet just a week ago, in protest of our government literally stealing children from their parents and abandoning them in cages — even as the American dream continues to rot at its very core. This film’s title is no accident; there is no story more American than that of the immigrant and the refugee.

I’m nearly 32 years old, and Don Bluth can still fuck me the hell up. LACMA is running a full series of his works all month long. I’ll watch them all, and they’re all going to fuck me up.

Advertisements

Llorando

Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, but it can also plunge me into the depths of truly unique melancholy. I remember once standing in line outside a different theater than the one I watched it in tonight, unable to avoid overhearing some young guy haughtily attempting to “explain” what the movie means to the poor, trapped girl with him. In the moment, I just had to laugh to myself about the likelihood that such a conversation would piss off no one more than David Lynch himself. Still, the older I get, the more I work through and survive, the more deeply the film seems to affect me. Maybe it’s a film which has threads that are only navigable if you recognize the feelings explored through them.

If you’ve come to a city, full of dreams, the place itself often described the same way, and watched them all shrivel away. If you’ve had something creative that you felt was yours wrenched out of your control, twisted beyond recognition. If you’ve attempted, feeling buried and trapped by the best and worst of your memories, to re-write your own history in a far better, softer light. (Naomi Watts’ incredible duality cannot be under-praised in this respect. The smiling, big-eyed idealism and breezy confidence of her fictionalized Betty persona, compared with her brokenhearted, bitter and raw, gaping wound of a real Diane is something to behold.) If you’ve ever wanted to imagine yourself as an arrival on a film set who commands the attention and drops the jaw of the director himself, as opposed to the one more invisible nobody that you are. If you’ve ever, hopelessly naively, given your heart to a charming, flighty, selfish Camilla. It’s all there, all at once. It’s beautiful, and dark, and hopeless, and overwhelming.

Walking out of the theater tonight, though it was already after 10:30, I knew I couldn’t go straight home. My life in general has felt almost completely unmoored of late — my family, my work, my measly personal life — and all I felt able or driven to do was continue walking. Which I did, for well over two hours. I reached a point where my legs, particularly the injured one, were protesting enough that I wondered if I would make it home, though I kept on. I think I was looking for something, anything, out in the night to help me feel less alone, or at least as if I still belonged here.

I only encountered things that came across as the opposite of encouraging, naturally. Even the little feral cats I used to visit in their yard, who I had particularly been hoping to see, were nowhere to be found; perhaps I’ve been away too long, and am just another stranger to them now, though I didn’t even see any slinking silhouettes in the dark. What I did see: a dead rat; broken bottles galore. Winding my way back west, I passed a man clinging to a pay phone, one of the few remaining that still functions, pleading and sobbing over the phone line, with someone who was not here with him. I knew how he felt, too.

Perhaps the time when there may have been anything or anyone out there for me to find comfort or encouragement from is over. Maybe the time before now, even, was — as the band leader reminds us in Club Silencio — “all an illusion.”

There is a stretch of Fountain Avenue that crosses briefly over the 101 freeway. It is so dark, late at night, along this particular piece of road, no one — if there even is anyone around, which there rarely is — can see you; it’s a struggle to even see the sidewalk ahead of you. It is a safe place for someone like me to cry when she never wants anyone to see. It’s a place where, though I’ve personally never quite reached suicidal feelings, even at my most depressed, I can briefly understand the impulse that drives people to jump off highway overpasses. It is loud, and bright, and nothing beneath you will stop, even when everything stops for you. It would be over quickly, if one were to do it. It would be forgotten maybe an hour or two later, afterward. The cars will keep on driving.

Naturally, I eventually made it back, only to discover I’d worn a hole through a favorite pair of socks. A fitting end to a meaningless journey in the dark.

The scene when Camilla leads Diane up the hill in the night, through a “secret path” in the brush, and Diane looks down and smiles to see her hand holding hers, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score sweeps through you… I’m not sure any other scene in a movie can make my heart ache more. It is the last moment she still believes in the illusion of her life, and her love, as if any of it was real.

It doesn’t last, of course. Not long after, she goes mad with grief and guilt; she kills herself. But at least, for that one final moment, the fantasy of what she’d thought she once had still feels like it might have been real.

Aurelia

Try whistling this…

27 December 2017; unexpected endings just around the corner (35mm film, taken by Manny).

I stepped unnecessarily carefully around a spent chrysalis — I suspect for a monarch butterfly — on a walk the other day, and in retrospect, should likely have recognized it for the sign it was. If not that, the strange dreams that have been visiting me should have been enough. Rebirth, renewal; change. Maybe a whiff of death about the fragile little shell that remained, shed and left behind.

In a little over 24 hours, yet another birthday will come (and go). I’m not particularly thrilled about it, and at this point only hope to get through it as unscathed as possible. I noticed growing wrinkles (albeit laugh lines) around my eyes, without even meaning to look, the other morning; I’ve already encountered at least one gray hair, though I suspect more lurk beneath the fading red dye. I entered my third decade of life last fall with fairly solid optimism, for a good host of reasons, but thread by thread, just about all of it has been stripped away from me, at times in great, cutting strips. Spring is about the last time I can recall feeling as though any of the ground beneath my feet was still solid enough to trust, and here now fall is already upon us. Some years, my birthday even falls squarely on the equinox. It has not been a good year.

I don’t typically assign much meaning to my birthdays, but a friend who celebrated her own just over a week ago suggested that she was “pretty happy to celebrate leaving this last year in the past,” and I could only emphatically agree with her. (My response: “I very much like the concept of leaving this year in the dust on my birthday rather than waiting for NYE. Can that be a thing? Can we just hit reset now? Because seriously, fuck this year.” Hers: “Right there with you. In any case, it can be a thing for us.”) So yes, I choose to leave the past year behind me. There is very little in it, and my memories of it, that I can look at now as worth salvaging. I’ve certainly weathered rougher ones, but it was unquestionably my worst since moving here five years ago. I don’t care to struggle through another like it. I have learned from it (albeit painfully), but all I wish to do now is move past it.

I refuse to give up hope, though I have been greatly tempted to at many points leading to now; just because some things I had come to trust and believe in have failed me of late does not deter me entirely, and I still hold on to my hopes as best I can. But I can see now that many of them are going to have to be wrapped up in a casing of their own, shiny and hard, ideally to reemerge at some date in the future, though likely not any time soon. If, right on the heels of this birthday, I have the loneliest holiday season I’ve ever encountered approaching, too — not guaranteed, but looking more possible by the day — I need to shore up any reserves to prepare as well as I can manage for it now. I know now that any rebuilding of myself, any repairs to the damage I’ve incurred, the losses my fears have cost me, will have to be done in the solitary space of my own mind, as I wrap myself up to protect what I can, and hopefully transform myself into something better, to emerge on the other side. I know fairly well what I want to be, and how strong my desire is to become it. How long the wait between pupa and imago may be, there is obviously no way to know; I just have to continue to be patient, to wait, to continue working my best at acceptance.

I cannot change where I’ve ended up, nor undo what got me here — neither the mistakes that are my own fault, nor those that are not — and there is no moving backward in time. I refuse to believe any losses are permanent; I’m not old enough (yet) to feel quite so jaded. May as well take advantage of the ability to still believe in better things ahead while it still beats away somewhere in there, even if that means secreting it away behind a dark, tough little cocoon for some time, before it’s safe to once again stretch my wings out again.

Acceptance

MV5BMTQxOTg5MjY5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzEzNTYyNw@@._V1_SX1200_CR0,0,1200,794_AL_

Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephon’s delightful 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail.

People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they’re saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.

I find my mind revisiting this quote more often than ever recently. As with many things that the late, great Nora wrote (particularly under the guise of her charming, timidly brave little bookseller character struggling to make sense of her “small life,” Kathleen Kelly), it resonates with me deeply on a personal level, while simultaneously serving as a reminder for something I’d do well to be more conscious of.

There’s been a lot of change in my life of late, and not all of it of the kind I have liked much at all, but it is all equally inescapable, because that is simply how change works. One of my greatest projects this year, in terms of scope and difficulty, has been practicing something more akin to what is often called “radical acceptance,” because really the only surefire way to tackle the heart of anxiety is to surrender as much of the illusion of control as possible. In reality, all I can control in my life — and even then, it’s a pretty tenuous concept of control — is my own reactions to whatever I encounter while living it, both mentally and emotionally. It’s a daily struggle, as is everything else when laboring under anxiety and various other fun little neuroses, but it’s the best anyone can do, including myself. Part of being gentler with myself on the whole includes accepting these things, rather than pretending I’m supposed to, for some inexplicable reason, be stronger or tougher or more capable than anyone else. As my favorite musician once sang, “I will do what I can do.”

Besides, as another great writer, Junot DĂ­az, once wrote, “I guess it’s true what they say: if you wait long enough everything changes.” When I’m being overly critical of myself, I often like to paint hope as foolish, but the truth is, waiting on changes of a more positive type, perhaps even for things I still dare hope might happen (however unlikely they may be at the moment) — so long as it’s not the only thing I’m doing — is far from the most ridiculous way of spending some of my mental energy. Better that, than concentrating on talking myself out of hope. That makes it far too easy for other negative thoughts to creep in, especially those about myself, and in learning to fend those off better, too, I’m just less inclined to entertain them.

I have a whole little list of reminders saved on my Keep (notes) app on my phone, and I’ve found that taking a moment to re-read it every day has been a rather helpful habit to get into — along with others I’ve been stricter about lately (exercising, standing up straighter, being more consistent about my skin care, watching my breathing patterns, meditating before bed, being more mindful of my anxious thoughts whenever they might start to rear their heads, etc.). They are fairly short, though the full list is about 30 items long. Then again, it does seem to be the simplest things that, in the end, are making change a bit easier to deal with. As ever, one day at a time.

Always held close in your fear

After several months of sitting on it, taking forever to finish it off (and only 36 exposures! amazing what the cost of printing will cause you to be stingy about), I finally had a film roll developed at my nearby lab. I had not shot a roll in nearly a year, and before then, not in about a decade. I had never shot in black and white at all, before the winter before last.

I was far more encouraged by the results of this set than the one from last year. Perhaps last year’s pieces were tied too closely to emotions that were difficult to process, tied up in too much pain. I’m not sorry I took them — I’ve taken millions of photographs in my life, having picked up my first camera over 25 years ago — I will never be sorry to have taken a photograph. But the keep ratio on that roll was embarrassingly low, and I had set too high a bar to challenge myself with, after so long away from the unforgiving, changeable, wonderfully unpredictable nature of film. I shot nearly an entire roll late at night, wandering alone out on the streets of the city, with an old, persnickety steel tripod and a handheld shutter release shaking in my hands in the coldest weeks of winter, losing the feeling in my fingers, wishing I still owned a pocket watch to properly time the seconds of my long exposures. The camera body itself is 10 years older than I am, and made of steel, too. Its heft is reassuring and dependable, but must be adjusted to. I stumbled a lot, on that roll.

This second batch is certainly not without its errors, and not just because I’m not the only one to use it — a couple of friends picked it up, at my urging, for a few shots. I ended up, somehow (too many months have passed to be sure how), with a few double-exposures, one is entirely underexposed — so much so it took me a few minutes to decipher where I had taken and what it had been of. A few are not a good mix of aperture and shutter speed, and came out sadly flat as a result — black & white film is completely unforgiving to a failure in getting those elements talking to one another smoothly, and will wash most all detail away in mid-range grays as punishment.

And yet… the ones that do work, this time, outnumber those that do not. And the ones that work rather stunned me. It has been such a long time since I felt so moved by any of my own work. I am reminded how much more deeply film carries a feeling of place and memory for me, in a way that digital never has. It’s not that digital photographs I’ve taken (which still greatly outnumber those I’ve shot on film, sadly) hold no meaning or value to me; quite the contrary. But no digital photograph has ever given me the feeling of sudden and deep transport back to a place I once was and exposed a frame to light in the way that photos like these do. And the places (the poppy fields, Hollyhock House) and things I most hoped to capture — to freeze in time, as Susan Sontag once described us photographers as constantly, vainly fighting to do — were right there before my eyes, almost as if I had been transported directly back into those very moments again. I’ll even admit to audibly gasping at one or two, they exceeded my expectations so completely. The warmth and texture, the true depth of space, the contrast and purely imprinted light… I have scrolled through the lot of them several times already, and with a sense of deep contentment with my work I have not felt in perhaps many years. This is how you want a photograph to make you feel, but it’s been long enough since I last achieved this, I had forgotten what a powerful feeling it can be. I’m sure some will be posted here, or elsewhere, soon. I can feel proud to place my name under them. I also can see better what my margin of error will be with this particular film I’ll have to work within for a series I’ve been planning to shoot for years, and will begin work on soon. But looking through these, I can also see — within those limits — what I am capable of capturing, within those limits, and it is encouraging.

One photograph in particular — and it is not even one of the technically “successful” ones; it is underexposed and not fully in focus, though I knew the moment I took it I would be lucky if anything in it would come out discernible at all — captures a treasured memory, a very precious moment in time. I surprised myself, at the time, in even daring to take it. And it is fairly dark, and somewhat blurred, but… it is there. My happiness in that moment, my peace and contentment, are right there within it, alive still.

Seeing any sort of hope realized, for once, even a relatively small one, feels so rare to me, or possibly it just seems that way of late. Looking at it reminds me how I still long for another moment like it, but seeing it preserved better than I dared hope I might be able to makes that feel not quite so impossible now, somehow. I did not know even a slice of my own face could look as beautiful as it does there, and that is a hopeful thing to see, too.

Your flesh has come of age

354203492-hirsohima_post_current

“You destroy me. You’re good for me.” — Elle, Hiroshima, Mon Amour

(Rest in peace, lovely, prolific Emmanuelle Riva.)

“Here is what we know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes. There is always more, and more again. […] One can make a life out of focusing on what one does not have, but that’s no way to live. A seat at the table is plenty.” — Elisa Albert

I’ve learned in recent years I cannot be careless with my words, which when I was younger, I realize now I often was. For a while, as a bitchy little contrarian teenager, who knew no other way of dealing with simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb (due to being 4-6 inches taller than the 4,000 other students I shared a campus with for four years) and being completely invisible (due to, well, no one ever taking notice of me, regardless what I did or did not choose to do), I almost wore it like a badge of honor. Most young people shrouding themselves in protective sarcasm do, though we like to think, before we (hopefully) grow up, this is a novel or unique approach.

First for others who I care for, but also for myself. I was able to talk myself down so casually. (It’s a hard, hard habit to break, to quote a song off one of my favorite albums of last year. I still do it.) I was taught, approaching 30, the consequences my words can have, solid as actions, lasting as hammering nails into wood. Why was this such a difficult lesson to learn? Why did it come so late? Is this really just the consequence of a life spent mostly alone and lonely? Possibly. If no one around you cares what you say, it’s challenging to assign any weight to those words. But thinking on it now, there are so many things others have said so carelessly to me that I know I’ve never forgotten.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there truly is no end to want or desire — regardless what it’s focus might be — frustrating, maddening, depressing, terrifying as that can be; how it can make you want to tear away your own skin. I continue to learn that being mindful is the only way to push through it, to the necessity of sheer survival, and cherishing what you do receive, which is rarely what you expect to, and even less often what you hope for. To give more. That, in fact, wanting things is good, and yet not getting everything you want is also good.

A lot of things have fallen away from me in these recent years, plenty of which have been freeing, while others have been dismaying. A best friend of over two decades, any close family ties with my father’s half of the family (I never really had any to my mother’s, with a few exceptions, to begin with), expectation of growing out of my invisibility. I suppose when I was younger I believed, or at least hoped, that someday I would, after so many years of cocooning myself, eventually emerge as a colorful, striking, beautiful butterfly — the ultimate cliche! — but, no. I remain, as ever, the sort of homely little moth who blends into the sweaters you’ve forgotten about in the back of your closet.

tumblr_ogyp9sclti1qhge3oo8_1280

But fighting your nature is no better (nor less futile) than fighting your desire, so — entering my 30s, continuing to grow older — seems as good a time as any to accept such lessons. I’ve certainly gained much more mental clarity and emotional stability over the past year or so, which seems to point to it being the right direction. There is so much negativity and fear in the world, growing every day; fighting constant battles with myself, on top of struggling with those greater issues of humanity, seems a great waste of energy. Onward, little brown moth. Someone, at least, may see one day the little holes you left behind, even if they’ll never see you.

City of Angels

Four years ago today, I moved to Los Angeles.

I was afraid I might be running away, the sort of running away you engage in when trying to escape yourself — both impossible to accomplish and impossible to resist attempting — and maybe I was. I’m not even sure now, because returning to the state of mind I was in then is impossible. Considering how unhappy I was then, this is a relief, even if it makes the me of my early 20s essentially a stranger to me now. I don’t know how that girl was somehow able to spend so much time so alone, doing so little; I don’t know how she survived wasting the countless hours on the horrible jobs she did. I don’t now how she survived to become me, but perhaps that’s the key word: survival can erase everything but the barest essentials from your life. You can withstand things that might cripple you under other circumstances, or that might seem insurmountable from the outside, purely because human beings are as stubborn about surviving as a virulent strain of some horrible plague. We keep thinking things cannot be survived, and then survive them, almost in spite of ourselves.

One of the best novels I’ve read this year was centered around the multiple universe theory of physics. (Well, funnily enough, that’s actually true of the plots two of the best novels I’ve read this year…) The concept of the various versions of yourself you both do and do not become (or, rather, the version you become in one timeline versus another) has always been something I’ve thought of now and then, but the plot of a book bringing physical manifestation to that idea made me think on it more. Who would I have become if I hadn’t come here? How much longer could I have survived my life as it existed then? One of the few things I do remember vividly from that time is how desperate I had become to change my circumstances; I would have done just about anything to do so. I had no money, and I let that keep me from making the move for years, but eventually even that could not stop me. I risked living out of my car to get away. To come here. I only escaped that potentially disastrous outcome by the very thinnest skin of my teeth, with some unexpectedly generous outside help, and through some pretty absurd (and uncharacteristic) luck.

The first month was hell. I told no one, because I didn’t have the words, and there was really no one to tell, besides. I burst into tears in my car on several occasions, in full view of any strangers who might see through un-tinted windows; whoever I was becoming, I was frighteningly different from the woman who, just weeks before, had never even shed a tear in front of the friend she’d had since she was seven years old. It shocked and confused me; I felt like a stranger to myself. Whatever I thought I knew so solidly about myself, my identity; nothing felt certain anymore. I ate very little, and poorly; I couldn’t afford to do otherwise. On more hopeless days, I thought I might be losing my mind. Just who did I think I was, driving a U-Haul up here with absurdly unfocused hopes of finding some kind of salvation in a new city? At least actors, actresses, writers — the ceaseless tide of people who come here with dreams of becoming part of The Industry — have some idea in mind of who they want to become, of what life they want to find or manufacture. I had nothing. I didn’t have any sense of who I was then, and no idea who I might possibly be. I looked at the choice I had made the night I arrived, sitting on the floor alone in an unfamiliar apartment littered with cardboard boxes, and the brazen stupidity and recklessness of what I had done crashed over me like a wave. (And that was before I realized I’d left my cell phone with my friend already on his way back to my hometown, and knew literally no one in the city.) I can be terribly cruel to myself, but I’m sure I’ve never berated myself with more force than I likely did then, knowing I had no way to go back should I change my mind or fuck up, no safety net of any kind to protect me if I failed, and no idea at all how to move forward. I’m amazed I didn’t actually throw up. Probably all that stopped me was sheer stubbornness and an empty stomach.

bw04

Alta Loma & Holloway (West Hollywood)

But I had felt the energy here, so many times before, during brief visits to the city; all the people in the midst of creating or striving, and felt so drawn in by it, you could have measured the polarity inside me changing with a multimeter.

Whenever I came back to visit my hometown in the future, I wanted to be nearly unrecognizable from who I had been before. I guess I never knew, until it propelled me here, how powerful a motivator self-hatred can be. If you are determined enough to become a person you don’t hate anymore, you can do just about anything. It will sting your throat like bile and make your insides feel scraped out and raw, but you won’t be the same on the other side of it. You’ll shed the skin of your former self like some venomous snake.

Not much later, I met someone who not only forced me to confront my honest, truest, sometimes ugliest self, but saw through all that to the better and best parts of me, then chose (and still chooses) to remind me of them often. He thought I was beautiful even at my messiest and most lost (and still does, though I can still be plenty messy now). He looked at me and didn’t see anything other than who I really was, before I even knew how to see her fully. He helped me build a safe place to discover her for myself. Now, we get to move forward together, too; we get to build new things, forge new paths. I get to be braver than I knew I could be. But that version of me was always in there, somewhere, or I don’t believe I could be her now. I had to earn the right to meet her, then to become her. It was the hardest, most necessary, work I’ve ever done.

bw01

Kauai Surf apartment complex (Martha St., Van Nuys)

I found an amazing city. I found streets I loved to walk on, and places I loved to walk to, things I loved to do. The first place I lived here was not ideal, but it was preparation for where I would end up next, which pretty much is. Sometimes, still, I walk through my neighborhood, or further out, and feel the breeze move through me like wings fluttering in my chest. I feel so full of love for my city I could run over with it like an overflowing cup. I’ve found a kind of home and peace here I don’t believe I’ve had anywhere else. I found wonderful friends. I found good work. I found inspiration, which had been absent so long I was afraid I’d lost it forever. I sat at a table in a dumpy little burger joint late at night, after coming in from a bit of rain, let someone hold my hand and really look me in the eye, and took a step toward an unknown future, cracking my heart wide open to any and all of it like an eggshell. All of these things are, in a way, part of the same single choice I made to point my car north and set out alone for whatever I could carve out in the world for myself. It was — all of it, simultaneously — the best, bravest, craziest, most terrifying, and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I never knew I had it in me until I had already done it, and by then there was no turning back. Not that I ever would have.

bw06

Fatburger (Santa Monica & Vista, West Hollywood)

I blogged throughout all of this, sometimes in painstaking detail (albeit on another site) to bolster my memory —  to this day I know (and am grateful for knowing) that particular memories are especially vivid to me because I documented them while they were freshest in my mind — and later, as I allowed it to become more personal, more therapeutic; to understand, or at least attempt to make some sense of myself. I still do. I’m doing it now.

It wasn’t a painless process by any means; I’ve weathered things since coming here that brought hurts with them deeper than anything I’d experienced before. But I’ve earned what I’ve made, and part of it comes with and through those things, too. Nothing worth having comes without struggle, or so they say. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience plenty of firsts in my life during my time here, too. Some infuriating (first parking ticket, moving violation and tow to the impound, though thankfully not all at once), some disgusting (cockroach infestation! thanks to the messiest roommate ever, also my first, of the non-familial variety), some exhilarating and transporting (kiss, and all that followed it), some shocking (celebrity friends (?)), others all manner of bizarre (too many to list here, frankly). An on and on, and so it goes.

bw03

Spaulding & Santa Monica (West Hollywood)

Maybe you do have to start out running away — and maybe it doesn’t much matter what from — to end up finding the truest version of yourself. To each their own. Maybe fear and pain and risk and struggle have to combine in just the right way, at the right time — like chemicals in solution, under just the right control settings — in order to burn through whatever falsehoods and barriers you’ve constructed around yourself, until there is nothing left but your true, core self. It’s not that your real self never changes — it’s changing all the time; we are constantly remaking ourselves and relearning ourselves until the day we die — but that you reach that decisive point, where you make a choice: I will not stay still the better to hide from myself. I will keep moving forward to see myself more clearly.

I ran and I ran, I was looking for me […]
I ran and I ran, I’m looking there still […]
I ran and I ran
I’m still running away

Song lyrics are Madonna’s, Š 1998, from my favorite song of hers; photographs are all mine, Š Eleanore Studer. Shot long exposure throughout the city with my ’76 Nikon F2S on Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black and white negative film, winter 2015/2016.