Toxaemia

Peter-Gabriel-Scratch-My-Back

Low winter sun hangs in the
Wide winter sky, calls:
Open your mouth, child, open up wide
He’s coming inside…

He’s coming to eat you,
Erase you, complete you!
That sounds sinister; how will I know which one?
Oh, you won’t know for certain until he’s done

That seems ghastly, and far
too terrifying, and more like a trap
Any advice to brace, to shield, to prepare me?
So sorry, child: often he ends up all three.

But where can I go, can I run?
What if I’m too far gone now to hide?
Is that shameful, is that awful to admit?
To be so torn apart, yet not quite want to escape it?

Tell me, please! Does that not make me weak?
Oh, no. All that’s left is to part your lips, and speak.

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Lagan

They fell, down a mountain —
or was it a crevasse, a ravine?
Were they buried beneath the frozen white,
or when those hills were green?

My father falls after them, still, and slowly
I could not stay behind to watch
as it ate away at the both of us;
now he’s gone too far away to touch.

My desires, my wishes reach out to me now;
they’ll grasp my ankles, if I let them
My dreams of late are filled with waves —
from the deep, I hear their darkness beckon.

The sand is hot, birds wheel in the sky
while that old water calls out to me:
“Remember how I held you so many times…
remember how well you loved me?”

As a girl, my mother called me her little fish
and I wished for the scales of a mermaid
Forgetting that, were I ever to meet one
only death could follow her serenade.

So I fell last, not where or how I believed
could ever creep in and surprise
And now, at last, she beckons me, and I
am lost, falling through his warm eyes.

Just as before, the water is fierce
deep and strong and dark…
Below is ahead of me, above is behind
as her waves swallow my last little spark.

As a girl, I read of little Hattie
and the ocean she watched all her days
Now I wait, too, with these hopes like rocks
weighing me down, though he never stays.

 


 

Image © Barbara Cooney, 1990. I still own my old, well-loved copy of Hattie.

(And still, I am no poet. Apologies; I couldn’t sleep.)

Always held close in your fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undoing the laces

This past month, I skipped a period. Thanks to the current state of my social life, this was fortunately no cause for alarm, and the only reason I noticed it is that, for the past couple of years, I’ve been using an app to track it (for the times when it would be more pertinant to know). When I was younger, it took years for my cycle to stabilize; as a late teen and even into my 20s, I’d sometimes go two or even three months without having one at all, though I have no idea why it took so long to even out. This is only noteworthy now because it jogged a memory in mind which I typically am able to successfully avoid thinking of. The last time I skipped a period, it was because I was pregnant.

This is not something I even have to actively shy away from thinking of often, both because a good amount of time has passed now, and also likely because of how strangely I processed it as it happened (namely at a strange remove from both myself and my body, in hindsight, likely as a means of self-preservation when I felt frighteningly out of control of both). But every now and then, some small thing or comment might bring it back to me, and I try to dodge it as quickly as possible. I don’t feel any pain or emotional distress about it, and I’m not sure that I ever really did; I simply don’t see the point in staying with that thought. It is past. It happened, and then it didn’t, and life goes on.

My sex life in general, and with the partner in question, is irregular enough that, once I figured out what had happened, I knew immediately when it had happened — two days before the end of 2014. It had been a relatively busy day. We worked, we had a business meeting, we drove back to my place, we talked and relaxed a little while. He discovered there was a health scare with a relative, after receiving a phone call from a family member. (Ironically, the relative in question passed away later that same day, though he didn’t find this out until a bit later, probably the following day. Insert whimsical musing from a more spritual person than I about the cycles of life and death: here.) I remember it still as some of the most intense and intimate sex we had ever had up to that point; I remember looking down at his face in the dusky light coming through my window, and the way he looked back up at me. (I even hit a fun personal record that day, actually, if I remember right; I have yet to top it.) We made it last a long time, and I remember plenty of what was said, still, and how it felt. All of it was quite memorable even before the date gained any extra significance. I still get a little warm, even now, thinking back on it.

Thinking back now, the most recent time we were together was New Year’s Day, the start of this year, and it was a lovely and surpring way to start it. But I also remember, later that same day, suddenly realizing, I think while sitting and reading in a cafe, that at that same time, two years prior, I would have been (unknowingly) pregnant.

The fact is, I didn’t find out that I was pregnant until it was already over. I found out because of that, in fact. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aware that something was different; I was. (Describing it to a friend later, one who had also had a pregnancy scare earlier in her life, she agreed with me completely that the only way to describe it was just: “weird.”) I didn’t feel sick, or in pain; I just knew that something was fundamentally off about my body, whatever it was. I couldn’t explain it, but it was foreign, and it frightened me. I gaslighted myself about it a good bit for a while, because plenty of other factors in my life at that time were putting me through the ringer. I was being systematically abused and harrassed at work, to the point that the stress was affecting my health in numerous ways, both mentally and physically, though I couldn’t see just how badly so until it was over. I assumed, at first — or at least told myself, because it was less frightening — that I felt so weird simply because I was so stressed about money, constantly under attack at work, and never felt free from stress. And when I missed my period, I told myself that these were also the reasons why. Stress causes skipped periods all the time. It was nothing to worry about, and I certainly didn’t need any extra worry. I am fine. Stop thinking about it. I am fine.

My partner, and dear friend, of course picked up on this. There was even a moment where I could tell he suspected, consciously or unconsciously (I still don’t know which), exactly what I was afraid was happening, even as I denied it to myself. He gave me a particular look, at the end of a work day, while holding me by the hips; I said, “What?” and pretended I didn’t know what had just crossed his mind, and he said, “What? Nothing,” back, just as defensively as I had, and we were then united in pretending that neither of us was thinking about this at all. After this point, I’m sure he dismissed the thought entirely, because he told me later he hadn’t known what specifically I was worried about. And why wouldn’t he forget about it? This was my body that was beginning to feel foreign to me. He couldn’t feel any of it. Still, he asked me to come over later that night, after I was done with work, because he was still concerned about me, and I did. He knew that I was seriously worried about something, and did not pry. I was relieved, because I was completely incapable, at that moment, of confessing what I was thinking. I was terrified; both of myself, and what he would think of me, however irrational that was.

(My Google search history around this time, in retrospet, was hilarious. It had started as simply as searching for the strangely unquantifiable “symptoms” I was experiencing. Once “what are the signs of early pregnancy” became the first suggestion to pop up, I felt singled out by a fatal spotlight like an inmate attempting to escape from prison, and panicked. Once I let myself go down that rabbit hole, I moved fully into terror. My search history then shifted: First, “Does Medicaid in California cover abortion?” Then, “What does abortion cost through Planned Parenthood?”, and so on. I started reading about what going through one feels like, and felt sick, and more afraid than ever. I wondered if I would have to go alone, before I even knew if I’d have to go at all. The only way I could answer that question was if I confronted how cowardly I felt about telling anyone what was happening, or even what I suspected was wrong. I told no one. I was entirely paralyzed by fear.)

Curled up in his lap on his couch, I still did not tell him. I justified this by telling myself: We’re both anxiety-prone and mildly hypochondriacal. I don’t want to tell him anything until I know there IS a concrete thing to even worry about. This was a purely honest reasoning, but I’m not sure I’ve ever decided whether it was the fair or right thing to decide. But ultimately, I kept quiet. He held me close and tight, stroked my head under his chin, and said: “It will be okay. I’ll always take care of you.” Despite my crippling panic, I believed him. And I felt a bit better. Better enough, at least, to leave his place near midnight, drive immediately to Ralph’s — lying and saying I had already made it home — to buy my first ever pregnancy test. It was not cheap, because none of them are. I silently begged the young male cashier to not judge me for coming in, alone and pale, after midnight in the middle of the week, and buying nothing but that. Blessedly, he said nothing, and simply wished me a good night. I smiled, because I felt like throwing up, and didn’t feel capable of speaking to anyone.

I had read online — because, in America, shamefully, that’s likely your best source of sex ed, and it was never a question I’d needed answered until then; I was 28 — that the best time to take a pregnancy test is in the morning, just after waking up. This meant attempting to sleep first, which felt impossible, but I must have, because I do recall waking up the next day, feeling like a stone had replaced my entire stomach. By this time, though there had been some spotting and inexplicable pains very different from cramps — which was what had set me off on my bouts of paranoid Googling in the first place — my period was over two weeks late.

I got up and did what I had to, then sat and waited. I think I had to put my head between my knees to calm down, as I hadn’t eaten yet, and felt like I might pass out. Every joke about how long the two minutes is where you are waiting on one mark or another to appear in a little white window are true, and I can only recognize now what a cruel joke that is. I finally checked it, and my hand was shaking. What will I do? What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me? kept flashing across my brain like a visual siren. I still hadn’t even begun to answer any part of that question. I had never been so frightened, nor felt more alone, that I could recall, in my life. But then: it was negative.

I wouldn’t find out until the following month — when that period seemed to arrive early, heavy, bloody, and more painful than any other I had ever experienced — what had happened. By the time I took the test, I had already miscarried. That early on, it’s called simply a chemical miscarriage, which I found out — now searching online through a haze of stupid relief and mild confusion — actually occurs a large percentage of the time, but is rarely talked about, because it happens so often and so early (though is part of why there’s something of an unspoken rule about announcing a pregnancy until after a later benchmark has already been reached). It was extremely painful, and I knew what it meant, but I still did not tell him. I kept the blood and pain to myself. I still cannot say why I did this, because I do not know. I did not ever actively decide to keep silent. I don’t even recall thinking of doing anything differently.

I was racked with too many other worries, I suppose, to even consider doing more than laughing hollowly to myself, “Well, there’s an abortion I don’t have to get!” and moving on. But all the other stresses from before had not gone away; many had, in fact, only gotten worse. In just two weeks, I would be wrongfully terminated from my job. I had never been fired before, and had — at the most generous and optimistic estimate — no more than three weeks in which I could conceivably be without work before I’d have to start thinking about whether I could survive living out of my car. I had no time or space in my mind to think about it. It was over. Before I even realized what had happened, it was already over. So it didn’t really matter, right?

I didn’t even use the word “miscarriage” until several months later, in the midst of a conversation with a trusted friend; I think it was as late as November. We were discussing how crazy my former job had gotten toward the end, from the safe remove of hindsight, and I shocked even myself when the words “It caused me so much stress I literally miscarried” came out of my mouth. She looked as surprised as I felt to hear them. But, of course, Oh. That is what happened.

That night, I finally did tell him. I knew immediately that he was shocked and hurt that it had taken me nearly an entire year to confess this to him — though I had never actively kept it from him, as far as I knew — and felt horrible. But I had just… moved past it. I didn’t think of it. It happened, I barely examined it, concentrated instead on getting a new job, then adjusting to that job, and so on. Life moved on, and the more time passed, the less I thought of it, if at all. I tried as best I could to express this to him, but I’m not sure he ever understood. He was able to laugh a bit and shakily joke about it, just as I had done (“I guess that’s your free pass!” and “We would make really cute children, but uh, not right now.“), but not before he said, “I’m sorry you lost it.” I didn’t dare ask him what that meant, because I realized it likely didn’t mean much of anything, but maybe that I felt the same, and that I couldn’t fully understand what that meant to me.

I know, in hindsight, that it complicates my feelings on children somewhat, which I have never wanted — a woman like me should never bear a child — and in particular, these days, with the current state of the world, it feels just cruel to me to even consider. My mother, though never the sort to expect me to procreate, nor push me to, used to gently say, now and then, “You might change your mind someday!” Because, yes, one can never truly say “never,” and also because that is what had happened to her. But I always quietly resented it. Once, just before I moved to Los Angeles, when I was riddled with those particular fears and stresses, I had the most vivid and horrifying nightmare I could recall having as an adult: though I wasn’t yet sexually active at the time, my worst stress dream manifested in a fiction where literally everything else about my life was normal and exactly the same, except for being roughly 7 months pregnant, and having no idea how it had happened. I felt deep, visceral horror at it, that I was hosting a parasite (not an inaccurate comparison). I woke up just on the very edge of what would have been the first fully-fledged panic attack of my life, nearly hyperventilating. It took me at least a half hour to calm down. My mother finally stopped dropping her little comment after that.

I’ve never asked what he meant by that Sorry; I imagine it was mostly more along the lines of, I’m sorry you had to go through this, or I’m sorry for my part in this, or I’m sorry that you didn’t tell me sooner, or simply I’m sorry that a bad and painful thing happened to you. It might have been all of those things at once. Maybe he even shared some of the inexplicable sorry that I also felt, and could not explain, but that would hover in the back of my mind when I would remember, at random moments, the fact that, somehow, despite protective measures, at that time, some of his cells began to combine with mine to make what might, theoretically, have eventually been a new person, but of course, for so many reasons, never could have. That this was likely, for better or worse, the closest I would ever come to having a child. The inexpressible sorry that says: It’s just… strange to realize that that’s something that happened to you (to me). I don’t know. But it did.

I do know how silenced I was by so many irrational and shamefully selfish fears, surely heightened by my anxiety disorder, back then: How could it not change everything between us? What if he never wanted to touch me again? How could I even justify to myself having both those worries in my mind at the same time? Some small part of me is probably just as irrationally (if not even more so) afraid of the same things now, simply in writing this. Whether this is because of the strange stigma and silence that surrounds women and miscarriage, or the constant change that exists both in relationships and in life, or simply because love — being as hideously complex as it is — involves both selfishness and selflessness, simultaneously, and pokes at our very deepest fears, I don’t know. I do know that I am a worrier, to a typically ridiculous degree, because that is the largest part of what having an anxiety disorder means, and I also know that most of the time, my worries end up being completely unjustified. But I also know that some form of this post has existed in my head, off and on, for many months, and apparently needs to be written down somewhere, because it has not gone away. It was keeping me from sleeping last night, even. I don’t know what that means, either.

I do know that, almost exclusively, my favorite songs — or at least ones that I can fixate on or end up sitting with on repeat for hours — by artists trend almost exclusively toward the melancholy or mournful: Michael Jackson’s “Stranger In Moscow,” Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street,” Pink Floyd’s “Take It Back,” Aimee Mann’s “Real Bad News,” Bloc Party’s “Signs,” David Usher’s “Devil by My Side,” Genesis’s “Carpet Crawlers,” Harry Nilsson’s “Remember (Christmas),” and so on, and on… And I know that, long before I knew what the lyrics were largely about, my favorite Fleetwood Mac song was “Sara.” It still is. But the way in which it speaks to me now, I realized when listening to it recently, is slightly different. And I don’t know how to feel about that. I don’t know that I’ll ever know.

Hold on
The night is coming, and the starling flew for days
I’d stay home at night, all the time
I’d go anywhere, anywhere, anywhere…
Ask me and I’m there
Ask me and I’m there, I care…

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.

Altering Fate

I’ve mentioned it here before, but my favorite anime series of all time is Tenkuu no Escaflowne (The Vision of Escaflowne), from 1996. I’m aware there are anime with fewer flaws, probably tighter (or at least neater) plots, and a few others that most would probably consider “objectively” better (like, say, Cowboy Bebop, which I also love, but ultimately not as much; funnily enough, the incredible Yoko Kanno scored both series, they were produced in the same era, and both comprise only a single 26 episode series and one tie-in film). I first saw it when I was 13, back in ’99, and was immediately, deeply moved by it. I still am today, any time I rewatch it. I often even wear a pendant inspired by the main character’s that a friend made for me years ago. I’m pretty sure no one outside of Comic-Con has ever recognized what it actually is; people usually just think it’s a pretty rose quartz necklace with an unusual clasp.

But this post isn’t actually about “fate,” despite its title (which is simply a quote from the series), because that’s not a concept I buy into, in a chaotic universe. The series itself, however, seems deeply concerned with it. Unmei was one of the first Japanese words I divined the meaning of, long before taking any classes, because so many characters throughout its run throw it around. (This series is 20 years old now — oh god — but, just in case, beware of spoilers ahead!)

This is on my mind today because of recent personal, emotional battles I’ve been fighting, and various useful epiphanies I’ve been reaching. I had a movie on TV last night while browsing the internet, mostly for background noise, not really watching it (which is not unusual for me, especially when it’s one I’ve seen before); El Rey was showing Ladyhawke. Toward the end, there’s a scene in a great church of some sort with a lot of chanting going on, and hearing it, I was suddenly reminded of the main “theme” of Escaflowne (not counting its actual opening sequence), modeled after spiritual chanting, featuring monk-like dirges, which plays very often throughout all different sorts of scenes in the series.

It must have planted a seed of sorts in my mind, because I found myself thinking late last night, and on into this morning, all about how the series ties in almost uncannily with the things I’ve been working on improving in my own life. As obsessed as many of the characters are with the concept of fate, that’s not ultimately what the series is truly about. It’s actually about the acceptance of only having control — not even over your own “fate,” but — over your own emotions and happiness. As Hitomi says to the main antagonist* in the final episode, demonstrating her major growth as a character: “I don’t believe in a predetermined fate.”

(*The fact that this dude is heavily hinted to be none other than Isaac Newton is still one of my all-time favorite examples of anime non sequitur. And if you know anime, you will know that this is a hotly contested honor, because Japanese — heavily pun-based — humor invites a LOT of non sequitur.)

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Hitomi Kanzaki

To explain this connection, I’d have to explain Hitomi a bit. I’ve often seen her disliked as a character, for reasons that struck me as rather unfair. I’ve seen her painted as fickle (she’s a teenage girl struggling with new emotions; not just love, but personal responsibility, and self-conviction); shrill (she’s suddenly transported from Earth to some alien planet that’s been hiding behind the moon and is currently ravaged by war, y’all); and just not a “conventional” shoujo lead. But that was what I loved about her. (Let’s not even get into the fact that you really can’t pigeonhole Escaflowne as merely a shoujo series; it blends together sci-fi, fantasy, mecha, romance, comedy, shougo, and shounen elements pretty seamlessly). I loved that Hitomi didn’t look like any other female anime protagonist I’d ever seen. She was lean and lanky, not busty, and had short (borderline boyishly cut) hair. She was a track runner, a little tomboyish and awkward. She had a tendency to burst out thoughts without planning ahead as to how they might come across, with all manner of facial expression (unlike many “demure” or more feminine characters), then flush with embarrassment and awkwardness. Her struggles felt very real to me, even if the setting was pure fantasy.

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Hitomi and Van

I realize now, more clearly than ever, how deeply rooted the plot of Escaflowne is, not in fate, but in anxiety. Considering that I’m a compulsive overthinker whose lifelong, myriad anxieties have been causing some serious problems lately… this hits home pretty squarely for me. Hitomi may be a hobbyist tarot reader/fortune teller, and come to believe — as several supporting characters do — that her readings influence actual events, but what really affects the people and events around her on Gaea is her heart. Her emotions and anxieties dictate her influence on that world. In a way, Gaea is a stand-in for her heart. She arrives deeply in conflict with herself and her desires and sense of place and purpose, and lands literally in the midst of a war that threatens to tear apart the entire fabric of Gaea’s various nations. Different characters begin to attempt to use her powers for political maneuvers and personal gain, and greater conflict results. Her heart feels torn between two men — one (Allen) rooted in her homesickness for Earth, as he looks strikingly similar to the track coach she had a crush on before being transported there; the other (Van) the one she genuinely grows to love and appreciate as a true ally as they strengthen one another, and the one who understands her heart — and all hell essentially breaks loose. In the episode I pulled the quote from with which to title this post, one of the main antagonists (and greatest characters), Folken, creates a machine that attempts to literally Alter Fate, and swing her heart away from Van, because when she and this person who brings her strength and understanding are too close, it interferes with the fate the villains desire. They stage and score it like an opera, it’s so dramatic. (It is also awesome.)

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Hitomi holding her pendant

Hitomi’s pendant is revealed to be the physical manifestation of her heart, and whenever she’s gripped by anxiety or fear, it reacts; it either transports her from one planet to another, or merely from one location on the same one to another. In the end, it overloads the machine Dornkirk (or is it Newton? never gets old) has designed to steer the entire world toward a conflict-free fate, and destroys it. Human emotion dictates there can never be a world rid entirely of conflict, but as she turns peacefully to him and smiles, saying she no longer believes in fate, that’s her greatest triumph, and what ultimately begins to allow Gaea to cease fighting within itself, and begin to heal and rebuild. She gives Van (her true love) the pendant before leaving, as a symbol of sharing her heart with him, and a means to communicate in the future, as they now have come to understand each other fully and honestly.

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Hitomi’s tarot deck

I suppose I never completely recognized — somehow, despite wrestling with anxiety every damn day of my life — how much anxiety as an emotion dictates… basically the entire plot. But looking back on it now, that seems so obvious. The episode where Hitomi reads an outcome in her cards she does not want to see happen, causing her to shuffle the cards around and present a false reading, brings about further conflict because she is attempting to cheat — not fate, but instead — her emotions. She is lying to herself, saying that what she wants to happen for selfish reasons is the way things should be, and tries to force it to happen. Naturally, since this involves the lives of others, things don’t go very well. (A real tower might actually crumble and nearly crush a dude, as a very literal depiction of “The Tower” card, pretty much just to drive home the point: “Girl, you done fucked up.”) She’s forced to admit that she can’t abuse fate in such a way, but what the lesson really is is that her emotions and desires are not the only ones that matter, and the selfish motivations behind them will never bring about any kind of peaceful or harmonious outcome. This brings to mind my own current, personal anxieties — my worries that I cannot talk to someone the way I once could; that, despite my progress and his assurances to the contrary, things between us still feel “off” somehow — and how I can’t allow my own anxiety to rule my reactions to things, either. I have to remember what I’ve learned about examining them and dismantling them, so they don’t bleed out to the others around me. My friend is still here; he just wants to be sure that the work I am doing to care for myself continues. And it will. I haven’t lost him, or anything else; I’m simply going through the process of dismantling the strength of my anxieties, and not allowing them to rule my heart or mind so much.

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The threads of Hitomi’s conflicted heart and mind

Though there is an episode where Hitomi has a vision of Van’s mother, Varie, who literally tells her that the unrest in her heart is causing conflict, that doesn’t mean that simply having that knowledge fixes everything right away. Hitomi may now recognize that her feelings influence others, but that doesn’t mean she magically knows how to best handle this information. She even attempts running away from the people she sees herself as having harmed by these conflicts — the way back to Earth! — only to find that this doesn’t solve the core issue, either, and returns to Gaea to make things right. She still has to learn to reach peace within herself first.

The culmination of all of this comes, of course, in the final episode. Just when it seems like basically everything is going to hell — the world is tearing itself apart by war, people she cares about are fighting each other — Hitomi has a vision of Folken. She is defeated on her knees on the ground, while his spirit looks down wisely and kindly at her from beyond the grave, and gently reminds her of the power she has within herself to resolve things:

It will be alright if you believe. […]
People’s emotions sometimes move the heavens.
But when those emotions conflict, it causes great ill will.
If people can rid themselves of that, they can change.

In the end, it’s all about trust and faith, in both yourself and those you love. The only way to walk that path completely and freely is to rid yourself of anxiety. Hitomi finds herself standing alone in a field in bright sunlight, birds chirping, wind blowing through the grass; she is solitary, but it is beautiful, idyllic. This is a place she can only reach within herself, not through or with anyone else. She smiles, accepts what she feels, accepts that she has to dissolve her anxiety in order to stop all the conflict, and arrives at last at a sense of peace. The warring stops. Van is able to come find her, and they escape the compound she was trapped in, together. Van’s wings may allow him to lift her up with him, but it is Hitomi’s pendant — and her now peaceful heart — that carries them outside to freedom.

This is — much like my apparently complete amnesia about making books as a kid constantly, yet only now beginning to make a career of publishing — so uncanny it’s incredible to me I didn’t recognize it when I was younger. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rewatched this series, yet somehow never picked up on how this message resonates personally with me. Who knows, maybe I just wasn’t equipped to recognize it then, as I am now. But this just makes me love it even more, as if that were even necessary. I’ll gladly take it.

Hitomi’s final words (not just to her vision of Van on the rock, once she has gone back home to Earth, but of the entire series)? Softly, peacefully, looking out to sea with a small smile: “I’m doing fine.”

Inspiration, of a sort

I promised someone dear to me that I would continue to try to write more here, so, as it’s been a few weeks since I last did, I figured I’d give it another shot today.

A particular word has been lingering in my mind since yesterday evening, and part of me wondered whether the one in a million odds of WordPress’s daily word challenge corresponding with it might come into play, but of course they did not. However, the word that was assigned today ties in with it, at least slightly, or enough that I can excuse using one word to segue into another. So, I’ll count this one as a response to the daily prompt, because: why the hell not?

The word that’s been on my mind since last night is cherish.

Per dictionary.com, “cherish” means: (1) to hold or treat as dear; feel love for; (2) to care for tenderly; nurture; (3) to cling fondly or inveterately to. 

There was a plan in place for last night, and basically nothing went according to it, naturally. I didn’t leave work when I expected to (though that ended up being a good thing), I began feeling dizzy and unwell on the Metro, the bus didn’t stop where it should have, we ended up on the wrong side of the damn river. And yet, despite everything managing to sort of up and go to hell in a hand basket in less than an hour, my dear friend sat across from me on the bus on the ride back, put his hand warmly on my knee, and said, “I think you’re wonderful.” Clearly we were not meant to brave the headache of a bunch of strangers for some downtown theater performance piece; we were supposed to stay in and recharge each other’s batteries instead. As we did, and I drifted in and out of a doze, and watched his pulse jumping delicately in his throat while he dozed off, too, hearing it under my ear, that was how I felt: cherished. I think it may be one of the best feelings in the world that anyone can gift another. I would trade any hectic, headachey, roundabout bus ride — and a whole lot more — to earn it, and keep it.

What the hell does this have to do with the actual word of the day? As Fox Mulder might say of a suspected vampire’s untied shoelaces: I’m getting to it.

To cite dictionary.com again, epitome means: a person or thing that is typical of or possesses to a high degree the features of a whole class.

Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of occasionally blogging about specific memories, after spending so much time sorting through old artwork and photographs. Something like a visual thought exercise; discovering as I go what certain images and memories might prompt me to write. (There are other photographs I would like to write about, such as a small, semi-successful, semi-disastrous, black and white street series I shot this past winter, though for the moment they feel too personal to broach. And while there is plenty of material I continue to store up in my head and squirrel away in my notes about a series I plan to shoot about people in the bizarre little worlds of their cars, and how that relates to California and growing up in and being inescapably a part of such a predominant car culture… I have to actually shoot those photos first. So.) One I could start with might be this one.

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Let’s go fly a kite…

This photo epitomizes the idea (ideal?) of a southern California childhood, I would think. I am four or five years old in it, very small and mousey, and very blonde and sun-kissed in appearance. I am standing on the beach, learning how to fly a kite, in a sundress. What you can’t see in the frame: my maternal grandfather is there with me. This is the last visit he will make to my hometown, along with my grandmother, that I have any memory of (the only other was just after I was born) before they will both die, less than a year later, before I turn six. Both my father’s parents already deceased before I was even born, this meant I grew up without much sense of what the typical extended family was. I only had my parents and myself. The kite, of course, has Ariel on it.

I remember my mother tying my hair into pigtails like this often. Apart from her occasionally snipping off a few split ends, I didn’t have it cut properly until I was 12, meaning it grew very long and wavy, eventually reaching my waist, and she was always trying to find ways to keep it out of my face. I remember the ties she would use; little elastic bands with big, round, multicolored plastic balls on the ends. Pinks, reds, blues, and yellows haloing my head. I remember her hands gently pulling the strands back from my face as she swept it up to twist between them, behind me, where I couldn’t see. I remember that cotton sundress, that it was one of my favorites. I remember which part of which beach we are on. The sand between my toes, almost too hot to stand on, my grandfather’s hand on my shoulder, teaching me just the right amount of slack to feed the kite so it would stay in the air, so it could climb higher. The kite flew so high that day that my father took a picture of it, and even with the lens fully zoomed in, it’s barely a speck in the sky.

And so… the photo: the epitome of a California childhood. The person I wrote this for, apart from myself: the epitome of someone I cherish, and who cherishes me. (I told you I’d get there eventually, didn’t I?)