Some of us will always stay behind

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

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

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

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.

Damned if she do

drowning

© 2016 Eleanore Studer

When I was 13 years old, I drowned.

Out in the proper ocean, not in some backyard pool. There had been a storm the day before, and the waves were massive; it was stupid to go out in it, but growing up in Southern California, I spent much of my time in or near the water — one summer, my record number of days spent at the beach in a row hit 39 — and when I wasn’t in it, I was always aware of it. The compass in me always knew in which direction West could be found.

As I was pulled under a huge wave, for a time I lost all sense of equilibrium; which way I would need to swim to reach the surface was impossible to know or sense. I was rolled and tossed around long enough for oxygen deprivation to kick in, which slowly released any hold pain or panic might have had on me. I relaxed. I stopped fighting. I accepted the inevitable.

I was struck then with the simple, profound certainty, lacking any drama or fear, that I was — not dying — but dead. It arrived as a conclusion to whatever questions my stricken brain and nervous system must have been asking: Oh. I’m dead. 

A genuine out-of-body experience followed to solidify this concept, and as I watched myself stop struggling, a calming sense of nothingness settled over me; both of myself, and of what was to follow. I blacked out, though I have no idea for how long. Fortunately, I hadn’t been swimming alone at the time, and my friend was able to find me once the wave set had passed, a few minutes later, pull me out and drag me to shore, pound the water out of my lungs.

I’m not sure why this memory has been called back so strongly now — despite how many difficult things continue to pile themselves on me, one after another, these past couple of months, and how tired all of this continues to make me; both of my circumstances, and simply myself — because the sort of drowning sensation that’s gripped me recently is not at all peaceful, as the real one so strangely was. Instead, it’s simply a perception of moving in the opposite direction of my intent, away from the surface where I might finally breathe again; the sensation of the waters converging above me, closing in over my head; of waning strength, of erasure, of sinking.

I don’t know that I’ll cross-post artwork all that often from where it typically lives, but this piece — quick, sloppy, still with its pencil sketch marks, finished with slowly dying markers —  needed words to go with it, and Instagram isn’t the place for them. So, I put them here.

The post title comes from the Kills song, which I’ve listened to several times today, the lyrics of which feel all too appropriate of late…

If history hang hang hangs her well/ Her memory won’t.

She walked in through the out door

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© 1985 Time & Life

So, here’s the thing: If you’re a member of my generation (or a bit older, likely anyone born and/or raised in the ’80s), as a favorite blogger of mine put it back when MJ died, you either grew up in a Michael Jackson house, or a Prince house. That might have been true even if not for their (near as anyone can really know, mostly played up for publicity) artistic “rivalry” during that decade. I’ve been a dancer since I was four years old, and that means mine was a Michael Jackson house. It’s his feet and handwriting I’ve got tattooed on me, to try to remember my strength and beauty, to continue looking forward.

But the other thing is: I fucking love Prince, too. I always have.

I run all the social media accounts for my job, and when I saw his name trending on Twitter recently, knowing how brutal this year has been with musicians only four months in, my immediate reaction was, “Oh, HELL NO.” And then everyone calmed down; he’d had to cancel some shows, his plane had made an emergency landing, and he was ill, but he was alive. Thank fucking god, right? I was (and am) still in shock from Bowie. And I think we’re all still trying to brace ourselves for what’s shaping up to be a period in which a monster generation of musicians will be entering a risky age period, and anyone can go at any time. But Prince? 57 is young. I still considered, as I’m sure many did, Bowie young, leaving us for his home planet at 69.

When Michael died at 50, it seemed simultaneously impossible that he could ever die — the same way I imagine a lot of us, myself included, are feeling right now about Prince, collectively reeling — and seemingly incredible that he’d even made it to that age, after everything his own life and the culture that produced him had put him through, every decade of his life. James Baldwin knew, though he didn’t want to know, what would happen to Michael. I can’t recall now, in my shock, whether he ever wrote specifically regarding Prince, too, and if so, whether it was anywhere near as prescient. All I know right now is, when Michael died, Prince said he had loved him.

I can only respect how maddeningly stringent Prince was about the usage of his music, because it was his, too many Black artists have died penniless and out of control of their artistic output, and he had the right to do, frankly, whatever the hell he wanted with it. But I can’t say it doesn’t make me sadder today, knowing it’s going to be tricky for those who need his music now to find it. You won’t find him on Spotify, and if you want to hear him on Pandora, you’ll have to skip through a lot of other artists. I’m pretty sure the only place you can find his music without jumping through some annoying hoops is Tidal. He’s nowhere to be found on YouTube. He was infamously vigilant about taking down anything unauthorized on any platform, but particularly that one. (Hell, my favorite artist of them all, Peter Gabriel, is quite strict about where you can find his catalogue as well, and with good reason; streaming services, across the board, do not treat nor pay their sources well.)

Prince had a phenomenal amount of output. Because of its volume, there is much greatness within it, and also plenty you can pass on. He did baffling things with his self-branding, most notoriously going by a self-styled symbol for a time. He was a monster guitarist, and an all-around underrated musician, not just a great singer and songwriter. (I mean, he produced, arranged, composed and played all 27 instruments on his debut album in ’78. How in the hell.) An unreal, nearly alien amount of talent — like Michael, like Bowie — that I seriously doubt we’ll see again, at least not in my lifetime. Right now I kind of feel like listening to everything, and yet I’m stuck on a song that my own mother isn’t much of a fan of, despite being quite a fan of Prince’s herself, but that I’ve always loved: “Raspberry Beret.” I’ve never been able to explain to her why, exactly, I’ve been such a fan of it for so long — he has so many great tracks, particularly from that period, and I love so many of those, too — but this one just fills me with joy; it makes me dance. There’s something in it for me, lurking under the bass line, moving through the strings… I’ve had it on repeat for the last 20 minutes, and I don’t give a damn.

Turn on the radio. Go digging for the few tracks you might find hidden on DailyMotion, Vimeo, and SoundCloud. Put on your records, your cassettes, your CDs. Go do that thing we so often do when we just need to be out in public with strangers while the music of someone we’ve lost is piping through storefront windows and doors. Driving in to work today, as the news was breaking over the radio — and it feels appropriate that I did actually first hear the news from a DJ on the radio — I was the only car that had his music blasting out the windows, but hopefully as people find out, there will be tons of ’em driving around, all over the city. We’ve only got a handful of albums in stock at my record store, but I know I’ll be playing them all day.