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.

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Exoskeleton

17934563_440062826327421_3878326052056989696_nI’ve spent too many years, mostly in the half of my life spent at work, sitting with my legs crossed, and some of the many marks on them now attest to that. I hate them about as much as I hate all the other myriad marks on my problematic skin, and yet entering my thirties I am coming to accept that they will go nowhere, no matter how much I hate them, and I must simply do my best to — at worst — ignore or not see them, and — at best — learn to love them. I don’t love much about how I look, so this is a large task to ask of myself, but it would be irresponsible of me not to ask it, simply because it is unpleasant and difficult.

Summer is almost here; the time of year in which I can indulge most often in lovely walks around my neighborhood and my city, but in which I cover the least amount of skin, thanks to just about the best weather in the world, and this always presents a conundrum. I want to walk up the hill to the park near me that overlooks the city I love, I want to lie on the beach and swim in the ocean that I once took to like a fish; I want to stretch my long legs out in the sun, the grass, the water. I want to do these things unselfconsciously. I want to do these things without the back of my mind whispering to me — sometimes yelling — how much I hate the skin I inhabit. I want to not care. I want to be free of the vision of myself that is ugly, flawed, marked, imperfect. I want to ghost through the water and the air as freely as I did when I was young, before these marks came to me, before I realized, desperately and angrily and painfully, they would never leave. I want to believe that those who say I am beautiful just as I am are not keeping the exceptions to that beauty to themselves out of misguided kindness, that they mean what they say, that I am beautiful as I appear now, and not as I wish to. I want to no longer feel aching envy in my chest when I walk behind all those beautiful girls with their flawless skin who have no idea how lucky they are to not have to think of it at all. I want to walk and sit and be, and to like what I see when I look down and observe myself, which — as the late John Berger once so eloquently described it — all women must do, in some way, every moment of our lives. I wish I knew how. But summer is almost here; it will arrive whether I am ready for it or not.

It is a surprisingly late week of cold weather at the moment. It’s both a reprieve in that I can hide behind extra layers for another week, at most two or three, but it will end, of course. I am working on not seeing what is there, mapped on my skin, which no one has been able to explain the presence of, nor fully heal or erase. I am working on pretending no one else sees it. Eventually I hope I will no longer consider these marks a burdensome, ugly thing to carry; that they will simply be there, and I will no longer care.

Tattoos, in my life, have served as expression, reminders, declarations, and challenges to myself. When I think of them, all of which I have chosen very carefully, I see my body as a canvas. I’m trying to focus more on that, and less on the rest.

“Tugging at the darkness, word upon word…”

“I am beautiful/ Molding my own world/ The old me is behind/ I will march ahead anew.”

Your flesh has come of age

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“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.

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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.

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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.