How do I work this?

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

doors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

via Daily Prompt: Permit

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恋の予感

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Pretty mountain. (West Hollywood)

I was running late, from my other job I was pretending I didn’t have — or rather, lying about it being somewhere else, mentally berating myself over both things, simultaneously. He was running late, too, though I have no idea from what — I was too nervous to ask. I remember wishing I could’ve dressed more nicely, without being sure whether the occasion even called for it, but having no time between to do so, not that I would’ve known what to wear, anyway. I didn’t know how to look nice, really; I wasn’t used to caring. I might have even had my (then longer) hair tied back, lazy as ever, because I wasn’t in the habit of caring about how it looked, either, but I can’t recall for certain. Fuck, do I hope I didn’t.

I do remember, hilariously, that I pointedly hadn’t shaved my legs, not so much because I believed there was any potential for anything to happen (I didn’t dare be that optimistic), but more a ridiculous little inside joke between me and Bonnie Hunt, who I do not know and will never read this, by way of Return to Me. The only thing I had on to potentially look more presentable than I typically did was my boots — fashionable and covered with buckles, but far better for walking than they appear — otherwise all I could do was put on a vaguely nice outfit, despair at my skin as I did (and still do) every day, hope for the best, and head out the door. This was what I’d come here for, I was finally ready to say: I am ready for things to happen to me. I am ready to make things happen. Back down in my hometown, I couldn’t; too much despair and anger tethered me too closely to the ground. But now, at last, I could. As the late poet John Berryman said, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.”

While I was still in the car, looking for parking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he chanced sending me an unmistakably, albeit gently, flirty text message, and I finally felt I could chance some real optimism about the whole endeavor. I’d been too busy for the past week or so being extremely, silently pissed at myself for having any interest in the first place; I was new, this was stupid, I can endlessly punish myself for feeling things, no matter how innocuous, etc. It was already the second thing — after asking me to meet him in the first place — that he’d been brave enough to risk; that I’d wanted to do myself, but had been too afraid to. My pulse quickened a bit, and I finally found a spot.*

As I approached him on the street, where he stood in casual silhouette waiting outside his apartment, I realized: yes, this was a date. We both wanted it to be, and this seemed to hang in the air between us the closer I got, and so it was. And from there, we walked. Winter was approaching, and it was already dark out; streaks of reflected neon light from shops lining the boulevard shimmered up from the asphalt, as cars hissed sleekly through them. There was still a slight mist of the earlier, weak drizzling rain hanging in the air like a moist kiss.

I wish I could retrace our steps exactly — I have a vague idea of the paths we wandered, but I was still new to the city, and not very well acquainted with the area yet; the streets didn’t mean anything to me then. Our strides matched each other perfectly, which he noticed, and commented on, sounding pleased.

My heart remained simultaneously in my throat somewhere all night, while I also felt surprisingly calm and at ease. I rarely ever feel at home with people, and almost never do so immediately. It felt a bit like being mildly high, or some other form of chemical imbalance in the brain. He was easy to talk to, with a slightly shy smile, as though he wasn’t sure he wanted me to see beyond his moodier way of presenting himself outwardly. He watched me carefully all night, while I deftly avoided eye contact, not yet used to feeling okay about looking anyone right in the eye, after having been trained out of it for so long. Later on, sharing a milkshake, he watched me again, more closely still, playing with my hands across the table; I watched his fingers caressing mine, instead. At one point I did chance a look up, and there was such an open look of sweetness on his face, it shocked me, warmed me to my toes. I didn’t look away that time.

It was late when he walked me back to my car, holding my hand, sharing jokes as we traversed the mostly empty streets. Standing by my car, lingering, I gave him an opening, surprising myself, and he wrapped an arm around me and pulled me into him. It was a hell of a first kiss — though I didn’t tell him then, not for a little while, that that’s what it had been. I was afraid he’d think of me as childish or pathetic, given my age, or worse: it might break the spell that seemed to have taken hold of me, and cover me back up with the veil that had always made me as invisible and unwanted as I’d always appeared to be. I was visible now; I wanted to be seen.

And so I was. I melted right into him, and forgot about everything else. It went on for several minutes, and genuinely made me weak in the knees; I sort of fell into the front seat of my car after we said good night. But I remember, too, how I could feel his knees trembling against my thighs, and how wonderfully endearing that felt, how awed I was by even the concept of having any sort of power over anyone to inspire such a reaction, let alone facing the reality of it pressed warmly up against me. *I’d gotten a parking ticket; something I could not afford to deal with then, and which should’ve both terrified me and pissed me off, and yet in that moment, and for hours afterward, even, I genuinely could not care even slightly about it. It had flown out of my head, along with just about everything else.

I even missed seeing a pothole on yet another unfamiliar street, on my way home, just before merging onto the late, near-empty 101 North (and later overshot my freeway exit, too). My car had already been making a lot of cranky noise about the slowly degrading control arm in its undercarriage, but following this it made even angrier noises related to this particular oversight for years afterward, though I never told him. Slightly damaging my car driving home from that first date in such a haze of wonder and lust and smitten energy remained a funny reminder of that night to me alone, even once I’d finally gotten it repaired, only just earlier this year. My mother would’ve understood, but my father never could have.

There was some great expression in me that had been waiting to be brought out, or is still forming even now, or perhaps there are yet many of them in me still, big and small ones, coming out all the time, while others lie in wait. I do know that I wouldn’t feel this about myself at all if not for the spigot opening that night, and his uncanny ability to continue to open me up beyond that intial spark, and help me to face all the things I’ve found there — good and bad, silly and sad, beautiful and ugly.

This was all only 10 days after we met; 10 days further on, and he’d be wrapped around me from behind in my car, in a seemingly impossible position, the physics of which I still can’t fully explain, gently stroking his fingers along the top of my breasts, just above the line of the tiny red dress I’d deliberately worn to the holiday party, working his hand under it to my bare skin while a cop car sat just 50 feet ahead of us. Fuck, was I in trouble.

But I knew that before then. I knew it out on those streets, when I realized as we struck out together in the night that I would’ve walked anywhere.

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

Ash over sunrise (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

via Daily Prompt: Continue

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.

Late fall

This can be a very specifically melancholy time of year for me, while at the same time I enjoy the feel of the season and the weather more than probably any other time. Growing up in Southern California, never having lived anywhere else, I can easily say that our versions of the fall and winter seasons are the period I enjoy most. And yet, I somehow forget in the warmer months, but am inevitably reminded every year once again in the midst of the colder ones, that I seem cursed to remember too many things — things that are particularly tied to this time of year in my mind — that can be both wonderful and painful to remember, or simply make me ache. Sometimes I deeply hate it. But, though I’m quite sure it’s only me now who does — those of us who are easily forgotten always seem to have far sharper memories than everyone else around us — it seems I remember everything. And sometimes, one of them will take hold of my mind, wrapping itself around me by the throat, constricting it with emotion held back. It can even become difficult for me to swallow; my eyes will well up until I stubbornly blink it all back.

Late last night, despite the impending return of more unwelcome heat due later in the week, I was surprised to discover it raining, slowly, drops trickling down through the trees out back so softly I nearly missed the sound, as if they were falling almost accidentally. It dropped me suddenly backward in time as I poked my fingers through the living room blinds, in that way memories return so much more immediately to me in this season, to years earlier, when I was just getting settled into my first place. When I had moved here, it was late September and still unbearably hot at times, but by the time I was just finally starting to tentatively poke my frightened roots into the cracks in the concrete to see whether they would accept or reject me, little pockets of rain were beginning to burst over the city. If I had found enough of my way through those cracks, I hoped it might water me, too; maybe it would let me grow. I was still too afraid to allow myself to hope. I’ve so often been bitten back by life for hoping for anything, it’s still something I almost seem to punish myself for feeling, though I’m learning to at least curb that instinct somewhat. Even then, in spite of myself, it was slowly blossoming inside me, daring to insist I belong here, in a way I had never belonged anywhere.

I fell back still further to a particular night then, a little later in the year; one of the more (if not most) important ones. It had threatened with gray clouds all day then, too, but seemed noncommittal, only to finally burst out in a little pocket of droplets like surprise party confetti late in the night. After moving inside among the false neon warmth to keep dry, we had gone out to walk back along the dark, slick, glistening streets, red and green and yellow lights winking at us from the ground. There were still little beads of water left shining on the hood of my car, though the parking ticket — my first — was defiantly dry. But back then, though I should have, I couldn’t even care. My hand was warm and something large and new and terrifying and deeply life-altering was beginning to yield like the halves of an oyster’s shell, peeking open inside my chest to reveal some hidden pearl.

Sitting here last night, before the rain came, in the same spot I write this from this morning, I read one of those sentences in a book that sneaks up on you and devastates you with a longing so deep and specific and almost desperate that it physically hurts. I was at work, but I could have cried. For a moment, I thought my near-constant stoicism might crack a bit and I actually would.
But I stubbornly swallowed it back, as I always try to do, and — along with the rain, by this morning — it had gone back, hidden away somewhere unseen, though sure to reemerge, just as the cold soon will.

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.

Disordered

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Sunset at Balboa Park, San Diego
26 February 2016 © Eleanore Studer

I spent probably the entire first half of my twenties, or at least close to that, depressed. I did not recognize this, directly, until I had entered into the latter half of them. I recognized it enough, indirectly, to know I had to escape where I lived, because a great amount of that depression was situational, and I knew if I didn’t make a place for myself somewhere, anywhere else, my hometown might kill me. (Not in the literal sense; I’ve never entertained suicidal ideation. But figuratively, I knew it could make a shell of me, a husk of a person that held nothing. That’s a kind of death, too.) I resolved, at some point in that haze of darkness, that I would not allow it to destroy me. This fall, I will turn 30.

I first fell in love with Los Angeles when I was 21. My first visit to it, in which I was fully conscious of being in L.A. (a couple of childhood trips to Disneyland don’t count, and not just because that’s technically Anaheim), and which was made entirely under my own power, was in the late summer of 2007. I was just beginning to realize my college major had nothing to contribute to any future I could envision wanting for myself. I was definitely beginning to chafe against the notion my generation was still raised on; that once you finished college, you got a job and got the hell out of the house (and simultaneously starting to recognize that this was going to become the first big hurdle my generation was forced to clear, with no real help from anyone, and the guilt that would inevitably be attached to the extreme difficulty of making this a reality). I was young, and had been stuck feeling more so even through college, as well as feeling very separate; I attended community college, in a program no one else entered directly from high school. I was 17 in the beginning, while most of my classmates were in their 30s and 40s. I worked full-time, and in later years, after college, had to work two full-time jobs to continue to survive, and continue dreaming of that elusive escape.

I was less than a week away from my 22nd birthday, driving alone in my car, my camera gear in my trunk, so early in the morning the stars were still out. I hadn’t slept the night before, knowing I would have to leave San Diego around 3:30 to reach my destination in time; being young, reckless, and an insomniac, this didn’t strike me as much of a problem, nor a challenge. I was driving on the PCH for the first time so far north, which wound ahead of me, dizzily unfamiliar, on into looming hills in the darkness. I didn’t have GPS then, only a Thomas Guide I had glanced at and attempted to plan my route from hours before. But it was early and dark, and I was unsure of myself. I was heading out to shoot a triathlon at Zuma Beach in Malibu, and once I came up behind a car with two bicycles hitched to the back, I simply followed it with a flood of relief I could feel down to my toes.

I reached the beach by about 5:30, as planned, just as the sun was beginning to scrape away the night sky with bruising purples and pinks. I knew no one there, and no one knew me. I parked and walked out onto the sand. I grew up in coastal San Diego, but I had never seen a beach so beautiful in my life. By the following summer, I had spent enough time exploring the city proper, over the course of a week spent with a vacationing friend from out of state who knew it better than many locals do, to have fully fallen in love with it. Every time I set foot on the streets within it, I felt as though I was walking toward something. Where I came from, I felt nothing but endless, fruitless, circular motion toward nothing. The energy in L.A. wrapped itself around my heart like a fist, with a grip that only grew stronger whenever I reluctantly drove back home. I knew with a certainty reserved for little else in my life that I had to get there somehow.

It took me four more years to manage it, and even then, it was by the barest scrape of my teeth, and I came so close to not managing it, it’s no less than a small miracle that I did. I had a very lucky hiring at just about the last minute, and that was the only thing that saved me. My bigger stroke of luck came through there; I met someone wonderful, who showed me not only how to fall in love with — not the dream of, but the reality of — the city, but how to make my home there. I’ve seen enough people come and go in my nearly four years here now to recognize the small miracle of that, too. If you are very lucky, someone will open their arms to you and show you the way to truly be here.

It was only once I made a home here, and left my hometown, that I could look back and truly recognize: I had been depressed. These days I still deal with bouts of it that come and go, but back then, I lived entirely within it. That’s the sort of thing you can only recognize once you have stepped back from it.

That does not mean I’m not still a mentally ill person, of course. I labor under what can best be described as “mild” paranoid personality disorder pretty much all the time, which goes hand in hand with often acute impostor syndrome. Only in recent years, too, have I gained enough perspective to recognize that, for as many wonderful memories as I may have from my years being primarily raised by my (stay-at-home, self-employed business man) father, many of the darker aspects of his personality (and my mother’s) were passed on to me as well. He is eternally dissatisfied with his life, no matter the circumstances. I know that I do not suffer from this exactly, but I do know that this is largely where my dissatisfaction with myself stems from. His pride in me has always been vocal, but that did not keep him from questioning every decision I made, attempting to subtly control everything, asking me to justify every action. I may be happy with where I am and what I’m doing, but he will question every aspect of how and why. In his mind, there is always something better just out of my reach, and he wonders why I’m not trying harder to achieve that forever elusive next thing. Happiness in the moment is never enough. This leaves me often struggling with accountability. If I fail at something, my brain demands to know why, assumes the fault is entirely mine, and is harsh and unforgiving. (The primary difference between us is likely that my father applied this ideology to everyone. I internalize everything; I treat only myself this way.) All the anxiety — and there is more of it in me than I can possibly list here — meanwhile, comes from my mother. So, too, does my instinctual need to give my best to others, through some fear of abandonment, leaving very little for myself.

I had a long conversation with my dearest friend today, who is the only person who will read this, though as I am in some way writing it for both of us, that seems appropriate. It was a difficult conversation, because I am headstrong in many ways, both good and bad, and am struggling with the fallout of some experiences this year that have called out all my worst trust issues and self-doubts from where they like to hide, to all parade around the forefront of my mind instead. It makes me difficult to be around, let alone to love. It makes me crave the company of those few I do trust, while simultaneously distrusting any desire they may have to be there for me. (This, naturally, causes a conundrum.) It makes me fearful of losing anyone else; makes me certain that if I do, it will be my own fault. It blinds me to the gratitude I naturally feel for being where I am, for having gotten this far, for the people around me, for where we are going next, for what I am capable of, for having survived.

But I am grateful for that conversation, as I am for every conversation we have ever had, because (among many other reasons to be grateful for anyone who can know me so well, and not only still love and trust and cherish me, but to do so because of this) it gave me some further illumination, on top of what I reached with the help of another friend the other day. I often say that I’m difficult to love, and while that may be true, I think I’ve often been blind to the fact that this also means it is a struggle for me to love myself. If those who love me can choose to be patient enough to do that, then so can I.

So, I made myself a list. I typed it out in my favorite list app in my (slowly dying) cell phone, so I can carry it around in my pocket. It’s a list of reminders of things to do every day. Things that I don’t need any reminder for on good days, but often let fall behind me on bad ones. The list reads…

Reminder: Every Day…

  • Exercise
  • Eat something!
  • Make time to read
  • Take a photo (even if it’s just on your phone)
  • Sketch something
  • Stand up straight
  • Look pretty for yourself
  • The emotions, desires, and hopes you struggle with do not have to cripple you. Use them to act as though you are still trying to win them back in return, but from yourself. Others will see that positivity, too. Let those emotions, desires, and hopes beautify and empower you. Remember how they felt in the beginning, carrying you forward to something new, frightening, overwhelming, and wonderful.

A pretty short list, but as they say, you have to take one day at a time. I got myself here. I got in a goddamn U-Haul on Carmageddon II weekend like an insane person, and I might have nearly had a panic attack after 11 that night, knowing that, in that moment, I knew no one in the city, but I fucking got here. I came here; I fell in love. I didn’t do it alone, but I did pull myself together to survive and make myself a home. This city is my home. I made it mine. I was able to do that where so many others have been unable and moved on elsewhere. I dreamed of belonging here, like countless others do, and now I do. I am strong enough to do that, and so I am strong enough to do these things, and more. And I will.

I have a lot of good ideas that I can be too adept at thinking myself out of. (A favorite dark joke of mine is that my greatest talent is wasting all my others.) I tell myself I don’t have the resources, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not talented enough, I don’t have enough time, the end result won’t be worth the effort put in. I tell myself I will fail, because making your worst fear familiar is strangely, horribly easy to do. I think maybe we tell ourselves that if we keep fear close; if we let it sidle right up next to us, we can rationalize it away, and ultimately it won’t make victims of us. But maybe that’s the most insidious thing about fear; maybe it tells you this, and that’s secretly its most effective way of crippling you. Fear gives no fucks about knifing you in the back if you invite it to stand right behind you. I’ve thought all these things about ideas I’ve brought to fruition, and they seem silly in retrospect, with the final product in front of me. The ideas I have yet to realize are good, too. I can make those real, too.

This photo is from one of the most recent days I can recall being purely, simply good, from waking until sleep, a couple of months ago. It took place in my hometown, though it is no longer my home; we were simply visiting. I have a lot of lovely memories tied to that day. My wonderful friend was with me. As the sun was going down, we walked through the park with our arms around each other, and were just happy to be there, together. I think if I stick to this list, maybe we can go back there, and make more memories like those. I hope that we can. If I remember that I am strong, that my fear only owns as much of me as I allow it to, to be kinder to myself, that my friends — particularly the one reading this now — are here with me… I know there will be many more good days here in my new home to carry me through until then, and after. One day at a time.