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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, © 1998, from my favorite song of hers; photographs are all mine, © 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.

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.

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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.

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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?)

Sliding scale of value

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Sunset on Vermont, East Hollywood
December 2015 © Eleanore Studer

Had something of a revelation today, while texting with a lovely and supportive friend (and hopefully not distracting her too much from actual work in the process). I already can’t recall whether it arrived in mind because of something specific she said, or just came as a result of having an illuminating conversation that allowed me space to see things I otherwise have trouble seeing about myself; perhaps it was a combination of both.

I’ve spent a long time — possibly my entire consciously developing life, since leaving the relatively carefree period of childhood  (pretty early, as most gifted and overly intellectual children tend to do) — struggling with self-worth. I will be harder on myself than any other person apart from me could possibly ever be, and criticize myself more harshly, too. It’s a big part of what gives me so much trouble forgiving anything I do or say that I perceive as a mistake. I’ve tried what feels like countless ways attempting to combat this, and re-frame my way of viewing myself. But when messaging with this friend today, I had a new thought that seems quite obvious in retrospect, but is nonetheless an angle I’ve never tried for handling this issue.

We were talking about our issues that we can be most sympathetic with between each other, due to whatever similarities they might have, and when she mentioned being a “caretaker” and having to learn to divorce her own self-worth from the concept of that burdensome “job” she assigned herself with people, I countered that I tend to view myself in terms of “usefulness” (e.g. if I find ways to make myself of use to people, they’ll be less likely to abandon me when I really need them). Guilt has all ways of finding me, and “Maybe I didn’t do enough” is a familiar refrain of that same old song of mine. (“You can never do enough” is what it turns into when things get much worse.) We moved on to discussing learning to recognize and acknowledge negative thinking and self-criticism; learning to call yourself on it, even if, for the moment, you’re not able to correct it, and recognizing it is the best you can manage… And I guess that got me thinking.

Maybe, as opposed to attempting to attack low self-worth head on, it’s a problem that needs to be approached in a more roundabout way. Maybe that makes it easier to work through, or at least less daunting and seemingly impossible. I realized suddenly how easy it is for me to view things I do for others as worthwhile, but how hard it is for me to accept any time I spend on myself as the same. I always frame my own time in terms of usefulness, too — did I get enough work done? did I get the work done I wanted to get done handled the way I wanted? was I productive? — and if it feels as though it wasn’t useful, that can make me feel like a failure. If I were to assign a visual to the value of my time, it would be a sliding scale, and most of the time, the way I see things, time spent on myself inevitably falls to the bottom. Maybe I need to try going at it almost backwards. Instead of fixing self-worth first, and judging how I spend my time less harshly as a result… maybe learning to value myself better can start, among other things, from learning to view whatever time I spend on myself as valuable, regardless of how productive (or not) it is.

I realize this will still be hard. None of this comes to me naturally or easily, and it can be exhausting sometimes. It won’t stop me from a genuine desire to do for and give my best to the people most important to me, because that’s one of my instinctive, natural ways of expressing love and care. But maybe trying to learn this concept of framing my own time and its value might be at least slightly less difficult than what I’ve tried for myself in the past. I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

I’d say, “It’s a start,” in order to wrap this up, but that really isn’t true of a process you’ve been struggling with for over two decades. Maybe all I can say is, “It’s an idea,” and for now, that will have to be good enough.