Acceptance

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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.

Bumper

The afternoon sun slants through the blinds; sometimes there is a birdcage hanging in the window, a towel covering most of it, obscuring a wildly excitable parakeet, and other times there is not. I sit in the stuffed chair, and the boy sits between my feet, on the floor, in front of the coffee table and the television, Toonami on the screen and a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal buried in brown sugar in front of him. He finishes off his after-school snack and his episode of Ronin Warriors, and heads upstairs to work on his homework. I’m left alone in the family room, waiting for Sailor Moon to come on, doing homework of my own. He is either in grade school, or junior high. I am in the latter; at other times, high school. Later, he’ll ask to go play outside at the round, dead-end of our cul-de-sac, by the communal basketball hoop, where I can keep watch from the living room window, while reading on the couch. Few of these details will change much, from one day to the next, year to year. The shadows fall and move across the wall as the day wears on, until his parents come home later, before dinner. The curtains are always open. No matter how familiar it might become, there is a certain kind of quiet that only surrounds your ears in someone else’s house.

Looking back on afternoons like these, I can’t possibly count how many there were. I babysat him for years. He was very quiet, and so was I; at his age, I spoke even less. His older sister played “Hummer” for me off her Siamese Dream cassette — by which I mean she let me hover in the doorway of her bedroom upstairs while it played, and she ignored me. When you are so habitually quiet, this is easy for people to do. Their parents let me use the internet on their home computer, years before we had one in ours. His father called me Nori. I’d sit in his office and chat with my best friend Matt on AIM while we played goofy online games. I possess — always have, still do — a very odd sort of sentimentality about things, and in a binder somewhere packed away, I still have a few printouts of some of those chat logs. (I couldn’t tell you why I printed them out then, nor now. I just did.) So much, of so little.

Maybe things have always felt as if they may slip away from me at any time, even when I was young, and I’ve always attempted to capture what memories I could in whatever strange places I could enmesh them. I’ve never been able to justify this feeling, but I think it must always have been with me. I have a very sharp visual (and aural) memory, almost eidetic. I have a couple of boxes hidden away in my room even now, in my 30s, associated with certain people, filled with such random objects and pieces of paper. When processing crime scene photos in college, I often morbidly wondered what a stranger would make of all the tiny, seemingly random little nothings that comprise a life and litter my small spaces in the world, when I would one day inevitably leave them behind; the things that shaped and tethered me, removed from context in death, left with nothing more to do but be thrown away, forgotten, to gather dust. There is a bittersweet little matchbook sitting one of my shelves of knick-knacks at home, and I can tell you exactly who gave it to me, and when, and how it felt to me then to receive it. Considering what a nothing object it is, long forgotten by anyone but me, this can seem awfully absurd. I have no explanations or excuses for my brain doing these things. I often wish it wouldn’t.

Slow afternoons as a child and young adult feel so different to look back on, let alone compare to what slow days feel like in adulthood. I suspect this is mostly to do with the same reason why any other passage of time feels so different the older you get, why time seems to fly through an hourglass the more it passes. When you are a child, an afternoon represents a much larger chunk of the time you’ve lived up to that point than it would today. Birthdays, holidays, vacations, they all seem so much further apart; and to you, at that time in fact, they are, in a way they never will be again. I don’t remember afternoons dragging, to me, as a child — but I’m sure that they must have! children can be some of the most impatient beings on earth — I only remember them now as if they are warm, quiet, heavy moments, like flies suspended in amber. This effect, which can only exist in hindsight, may also be tied in to the general lack of obligation that children can enjoy, up to a point — we do usually have to go to school, but until I began working at 15, that was the main structure around which my whole life existed; everything else was flexible, open, and so free to be wasted. I must have whiled away hundreds, if not thousands, of afternoons in that living room, with that little boy, with very little changing. And yet then, just as now, time was passing; my gawky limbs were lengthening and lines were already beginning to form on my face — we were growing up, growing older. Growing old. These days, any slow passage of time takes work to appreciate and enjoy, if my head is not in the right space. I can easily look at it as wasted, stagnant, lonely, and with regret. What other things could I have been doing? Productivity is such an ugly word. I imagine this may be one of the great things that kills so many artists once they begin to grow up. Productivity is where daydreams flatten out into nothing, where mindless doodling goes to die.

Summer is here now, which is a largely meaningless season outside the construct of school, as work doesn’t have an off-season (or at least, not for most of us). The air is heavy with heat, and the light is golden and sharp on the eyes. I wish I had grown to accept and thrive more in isolation then than it seems I ultimately did — it is a much more uphill battle now, sometimes, particularly as my solitude increases of late. This uncomfortable place between a restless mind and a peaceful one is likely the biggest place for my anxieties to hide and thrive. Whatever losses I did — and still do — mourn recently, I am much better at tackling it than I have been in several years, to be sure. There was definitely some adjustment necessary, learning to be alone in a much bigger, darker, more wide-open city. Walking around it alone is essential, and I always should be doing more of this. But there will probably always be a part of me that envies my younger self — she will crawl out of dark corners like a snake — and her ability to pay far less attention to time passing, most of all to those countless hours passed alone.

Some of us will always stay behind

This has been a strange year, and as it drags on with so little being accomplished, I feel more and more things slipping away from me. Living with anxiety as I do makes feelings like these into a very cruel sort of game (and a very difficult one to express): which ones are real, and which ones are all in your head? You can never quite answer correctly, either, because you will worry either way. It will either be justified worry, or it won’t, but either way, it still steals my energy, my hope, my time, and leaves me feeling sore and defeated.

Some of these things, I know, are real. Neither of my parents’ lives have any stability left in them, even as they near the age when you are supposed to retire. In reality, I have no idea what will happen to either of them, nor do they. My father ignores this, and my mother just accepts it. I do envy her ability to cede all illusion of control, but perhaps that’s something that can only come with age, and too many years of life disappointing you. My roommate seems to enjoy regularly reminding me that there is no stability in mine, either, in all sorts of thoughtless ways. Projects, relationships, hopes, all seem to be falling away from me, on all sides. My mind used to dare to give me the occasional hopeful dream, but these days I just have regular, obvious, exhausting nightmares about falling off bridges or buildings or through floors, getting swallowed up by tangles of dark things I cannot see. I have gotten much better at managing my anxiety this year, it’s true, and that is a hard-fought victory. But at my core, I remain the same difficult person I’ve always been, the one who does not fit anywhere. If she says otherwise, she is a liar.

This may be a darker part of the reason why my experience with drowning never scared me much. Apart from the lack of pain, and the fact that both my breathing and my flawed little heart stopped within just a few minutes — this is an easier fate for your body to accept than you might expect, at least when you’re enveloped by something as powerful and ambivalent as the ocean — it felt somehow appropriate to me, even then. It’s not a particularly violent death, and if one were allowed to choose what eventually removes them from life someday, I’d opt to just lose to the ocean again. (There are certainly far worse ways to go, and I know too much about most of them.) I have a lot of dreams about that day lately, too. The familiar, inevitable feeling of the endless water surrounding me at all sides until I could no longer struggle or see — like everything else in life, like my mother, I fought it until I had nothing left with which to fight — until I simply slipped away.

Eschscholzia californica

The past couple of months put me through the wringer somewhat, nearly crushing me under the one-two boots of February and March. The first brought unanticipated money trouble, the second an avalanche of work. They marched on and trampled me fairly well, leaving me physically and mentally exhausted, which in turn left me vulnerable to things in my head I typically can keep at bay much more easily. I came home from work countless times feeling as though I’d been beaten up, but still could not sleep well. Stress over paying bills and staying afloat became fixations, and I didn’t eat all that well for a while, both because stress had been robbed me of my appetite, as it often does, and because I simply couldn’t afford to. The older I get, the harder it becomes for me to accept the precariousness of my situation, as though age is any sort of qualification for stability.

But: they passed. I’m getting by, though of course nothing in my life is ever truly stable. The most exhausting and demanding of the work is over, at least for now. I’m not covered in (quite so many) bruises now.

Normally, I’m the sort of anxiety-ridden cynic who thinks, if I go somewhere unusual on one of my days off (not very typical in itself): “It would take days for anyone to realize I’m gone,” were I to just disappear. I live a small life, and apart from those who pay me to be somewhere specific at predetermined times, my presence (or absence) affects very few. So, I went away for a while.

I drove further out of town than I have — within the state — for any other reason than visiting my home town. I told no one that I was going anywhere, let alone where or when. I didn’t know if there would be any phone service once I reached my destination for anyone to reach me, but had no expectation that anyone would try, so I didn’t think twice about it. I had no plan, and simply stayed until it felt like time to drive home. I knew the fields would be full of my favorite flower in bloom, I had never been there, and I wanted to see them. I grew up a Girl Scout in Southern California; I know how to dress for and tackle hiking through rattlesnake country in the hot, dry sun. I wandered around alone until my legs grew tired. Fortunately, almost in tune with the turning of the month, my mind had finally eased. I felt able to be open and fully relaxed. And so, I drove.

I’ve always harbored a secret desire to someday take a road trip somewhere, though circumstances — an old car I can’t afford to risk, and inability to leave work for anywhere near long enough to get very far — have always deemed it impossible. But this much, I could do. Growing up in California, you can easily forget how massive it is, though that shouldn’t be possible; that you can fit entire European countries into it, with room to spare. I’ve lived here 30 years, but have seen relatively little of it. I’d never been out to Antelope Valley, either, where I ended up yesterday.

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Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

The Poppy Reserve was lovely — fields upon fields carpeted with my favorite flower; they began to peek at me from the roadside in patches over seven miles before I even reached the turnoff into the park… those silken petals that almost appear permanently wet, were you to touch them. They are a particular shade of slightly reddish-yellowish-orange that makes them unmistakable from any other blossom. How unbearably nerdy, for the state flower to be one’s favorite… And yet.

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Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I could have pulled over well ahead of my destination, as many others had, and still come upon thousands of the bright blossoms with miles to go, but I wanted to pay my respects and dues to the park properly (will state parks even survive this horror show of an administration?). If I hadn’t made the full drive, besides, I’d have missed the creaking metal signs and tinkling glass of the antiques yards, the crooked wood and sleepy-eyed cows of the small farm, the nearly blinding, rippling, almost mirage-like glare of the photovoltaic power stations.

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Farm, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I lost count of how often I pulled over to the shoulder to take another moment alone, another photograph, or five. That particularly satisfying sound of gravel crunching under my boots as I hoofed my way beneath the looming pylons and gently humming power lines; the near-silence of so much open space so (mostly) devoid of people, everything wiped away by the wind but the birds. The gusts were so strong they roared in my ears, made me glad I was alone; I couldn’t have heard anyone else speak, anyway. It pushed any last negative thought or remnant of sadness I might still be worrying away at like a pearl cleanly out of my head, as though it could blow straight through my ears, my brain not there at all. Though I ended up feeling almost more cleansed and enchanted by the drive than anything else, to my surprise.

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Antiques at the Barn, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

There is a palette to a California highway — its dusty browns, forest green signs, chaparral brush, and small riots of wildflower color. It was easier to recognize yesterday, driving a highway (the 14) I’d never put tread to before, feeling it lock into place among all the others I’ve driven so many times in the past. It is warm — all the colors I can’t pull off wearing as clothing — and in its wide open expanses, announces itself as both recognizably “Americana,” and yet slightly separate from it in its sprawling beauty and characteristic touches. All of America has shared, iconic imagery — roads that appear to stretch on forever, hills and valleys, rivers and rocks — but California’s particular little fingerprints jump out to me more clearly when observing them through a windshield, from the road.

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Antiques at the Barn, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

I can’t recall the last time I saw so much green in the hills, after all these rains. Of course, having grown up here, I know they may be a portent of a catastrophic fire season as the year grows hot and dry; how easily all that green can turn to kindling… a child’s nightmares in this state are filled with fire and earthquakes shaking homes to dust and ash. But you see, too, how we move our precious water around — the runoff  lanes carved sharply into the hillsides like veins, pipes sloping down from faraway water towers; now and then, the shock appearance of a full reservoir, that unexpected blue nearly tricking the eyes. The abandoned gas stations and junk cars left to rust; the long haul trucks sharing the road with you (a baffling concept to my Swiss father, whose homeland subsists almost entirely on transport by train); how the wind can seem to bully your car across lane markers in the open trenches, reminding you of your smallness. The dark mountains, knobbly and delicate in their slopes down to their valleys, like an old woman’s fingers; the single houses built precariously on high hilltops, little me wondering if they were lonely, so high and alone above all the others; the messages spelled out, helicopter-font-size, in bleached rocks amid the dark brush. Outlet malls and noise walls; Joshua trees and still-black old scars from burned out acres scorched in prior seasons; windmills turning lazily in the breeze. The sheer rock faces, whole mountains seeming cleaved clean through for the road to push still onward, the scrub brush still stubbornly growing through at sideways angles; crooked white wooden crosses staking old memory and loss along the sides of the highway. Pockets of bare new houses being built everywhere you can imagine (building always building, California will build itself to death); nearly every house that dusty, nondescript, unfortunate salmon color. Here and there the hawks and crows diving and scavenging, wheeling through the sky, a single startling puff of bright white cloud in the otherwise uninterrupted painfully blue ceiling of the world.

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Pylons and power lines, Antelope Valley (3 April 2017 © Eleanore Studer)

California looks like this to me, and even in driving over one hundred miles through a part of it that was new to me, it remains forever familiar even in its newness. I passed an abandoned prison, with its lonely guard towers looming over only shadows, fences weeping rusted barb wire, and chased the sun home.

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.

Day for Night

Certain winter nights with the right amount of moisture and fog in the Los Angeles air mean it almost feels warm, even when you find yourself dressed in at least three layers to keep the chill out of your bones. The low hanging clouds refract the city lights in all directions in a soft, fiery-toned magenta glow, like a diffuse filter in a photographer’s studio, throwing the iconic palm trees into permanent, postcard perfect silhouette.

I walk a slightly longer path home from work in this season, crossing the street an extra time and back to share the same side as the Christmas tree lot that crops up every year above the otherwise abandoned lot that once housed a gas station, leaking tanks still crumbling beneath our feet. Here in Hollywood, the trees are almost suspiciously symmetrical, standing ready in the setting sun to take rides on the roofs of cars tied down with twine, to grace the living rooms of the fanciest, brightest homes. As a child, though, I always grew unreasonably attached to the weirdest trees of them all — the sadder and more lopsided the better — just like Charlie Brown; once, when I was four or five years old, according to my mother, I apparently was on the verge of tears at the idea of leaving behind a particularly funny-looking tree, convinced no one else would take it home, that it would be lonely if we left it behind.

I drove around for hours tonight, presumably on the hunt for a silly little item, though not all that concerned with actually finding it. I migrated between three different locations of the same chain, none of which had it (though apparently any one of them should have), and wasn’t particularly bothered with the failure of the quest. In a more negative mood, I would definitely have described it as a waste of gas, considering the quest took me from Glendale, to Burbank, back to my old neighborhood in Van Nuys, and back home again, with little else to show for the miles clocked.

The legions of holiday lights strung out among houses and apartment buildings certainly helped; I found myself smiling alone in my car passing them by, in some areas not able to look in enough directions at once to take them all in. Holiday lights have been a lifelong beloved sight for me, ever since my earliest days of my father teetering up on the rickety metal ladder outside the house I grew up in, swearing to himself as he nailed them along the eaves of the house and above the garage door; the two little bulbs of a special type he would leave for last, carefully switching out our white front porch lights for one red, and one green. In a city this size, you see all kinds; the McMansions, professionally strung up to an almost gaudy degree, though still impressive in a way that makes me smile, too, sometimes two across the same street, brightly one-upping each other. My favorites though are always in the smaller neighborhoods; quirkier, more haphazard and multi-colored displays across so many more little homes, sweetly defiant little twinkling points of light shining from a single apartment balcony on the upper floor of an otherwise dark facade looming in the night.

Taking a detour through my old neighborhood, the first I lived in in this city, tugged slightly at me; my throat tightened a bit, recalling the particular feeling of making certain long drives to and from it during my first winter… of what was happening to me, my heart, my life, back then; how it can somehow, already, feel so long ago, even now.

Daily Prompt: Echo

Sometime shortly after I turned 25, it seemed enough signs in my life kept pointing out to me that it was time for me to give up on certain hopes stubborn enough to have survived my characteristic cynicism up to that point, and curl back inside my little shell I had been trying so very hard to break out of. False confidence may work for some, but for me it’s too flimsy an illusion; it’s never held any real weight. I’m too deeply self-critical and too poor an actor to convincingly lie to myself about anything, I suppose. Those signs were so clear and unmissable they may as well have been the equivalent of grabbing my face and shoving it into the dirt.

I turned 30 a few months ago, and though many things have changed, those familiar old signs are back, seeping back into my bones along with the cold, so what an appropriate daily prompt word I logged in to discover today.

The year is drawing to a close, and I am very tired. Sometimes learning a lot about yourself, loving yourself more, still isn’t enough. Maybe for the less lucky among us, nothing is.

Five years later, it appears very clear it’s time to give them up again. Perhaps I’ll have learned my lesson, and it will stick this time.

via Daily Prompt: Echo