Exoskeleton

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

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

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

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

“Tugging at the darkness, word upon word…”

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

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I drive off in my car

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1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass (Hollywood)

I may not be doing a damn thing when it comes to actively shooting the photo series I’ve been talking and talking about shooting for easily three years now, but I do spend quite a lot of time thinking about things that I recognize are elements connected to what it might eventually become; what I want most for it to somehow express. (If I ever turn thought into action, of course, as the caveat goes. As an engine myself running almost entirely on varying types and degrees of anxiety, this is one of the greatest hurdles of my life, no matter which problem of non-action you apply it to. Choose any one thing: if I have not done it, I am vibrating silently in anxiety over both it, and the 500 invented reasons why I have yet to do it.) Maybe I’m simply doubtful I could ever, at this point, create work that could even begin to communicate such a concept. Moving from concept to execution: the bane of my existence.

I think about it when I’m sitting at stop lights, inevitably, because the idea first arrived in my mind while watching strangers doing the very same thing. I think about it because, in my ideal world of action, I should be somewhere out on the sidewalk, capturing it, rather than participating in it. I think about it when I watch people pull into the gas station I always use from the wrong direction; they’re operating from within the bubble I want to document. I think about it when I’m doing the very private things in my own car I want to catch strangers doing: singing… crying. Particularly the latter, though I usually save that for nighttime, when other drivers can’t really see into other cars. I think about it a lot.

Aimless driving is one of those many things, too. It’s something I’ve engaged in ever since I was able to drive, once I finally had a car of my own (as two years passed between the two). In my hometown, it was an easy habit to engage in, both because I was largely miserable, and because there is nowhere to go there. I would simply get into the car, usually when my mother was already asleep (i.e. any time after 9PM), and drive. Typically north, but always along the coast. I would do it simultaneously very aware of having nowhere to go, and not caring. Gas was much cheaper when this habit formed, but I still do it now. Being as desperately broke as I am (and apparently will forever be) cannot stop me from doing it even now, as long as there is gas in the car already. I don’t even attempt to justify it to myself, both because I know this isn’t possible, and also because it’s the rare thing in my life about which I could give a fuck regarding its justification to myself.

I was aimlessly driving around just last night, which was a poor choice; it was a Friday night, in and around Hollywood; peak traffic time for those with actual lives who have concrete destinations and plans to get to and from, which felt both annoying and exclusionary. When I do this, in a city as large and busy as this one, I typically allow traffic to direct me, because there is nothing else to decide where I will go, or which route I will take to get there and back. If the roads are not so packed, though, I’ve found that I sometimes will — without meaning to, of course — dissociate slightly, here and there. I will lose focus on where I am, and what I am doing. I will follow blurred head- or taillights more closely than more immediate indicators. I put absurd trust into my sense of where exactly on the road I am, simply because I have learned over many years that I can. (My mother would kill me, if she knew.) I have good instincts in a car — mainly thanks to the manner in which I was taught to operate one, and my generally good reflexes — and am not overly concerned about my control over the vehicle, but at the same time, I’m rather amazed I’ve never gotten into an accident; my concentration is not at 100%, any time that I am doing this, because I am going nowhere.

This ever-developing project inevitably came to mind again last night, because it is mostly about the strange space we enter into when we are inside cars, and how deeply they alter our behavior. They become protective bubbles we feel we have absurdly more control over than we actually do (and this doesn’t even take into account the thousands of other drivers, even less predictable than ourselves, we are sharing those roads with); these bizarre, heavy, sharp, mechanical, deadly extensions of ourselves. Or rather, we behave and feel as though this is what they are.

People often express outrage, dismay, and helpless confusion as to why and how it is that human beings treat automobile accident fatalities — which occur in astronomical numbers — so casually, but I am sure all these psychological elements are a part of that. We accept that cars can kill us — are more statistically likely to kill us than any other entirely separate entity or object we regularly engage with, by far — almost casually, because some part of us sees them as an extension of our bodies. We feel protective of them, react to traffic transgressions as personal slights; gas and brake pedals can feel like extensions of our legs, the turning wheels a greater reach of our hands steering them. (This is, when you examine it closely, something like a shared lucid state of all drivers, flirting a bit with mild insanity.) Maybe we associate cars and driving so deeply with escape because merely driving one is skirting more closely to death than just about any other activity we ever participate in on a regular basis. Of course a car can kill you; cancer can kill you, too. It feels more akin to that than an outside element acting upon us, as with homicide, which we react to with far more visceral horror. Until, of course — potentially, likely when you least expect it — they fold in onto you like a metallic accordion — because you are just a small, soft animal, precariously housed in a glass and metal cage full of gasoline several times your size — crushing you to death.

I think about these things while driving around, rather than about where I am going, sometimes slightly dissociating, all the time.

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.

Invocation

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There are many things in my life I feel I can admit to no one, but one of those I tend to hide more deeply than most is my horrible tendency to wish. I wish for so many things, even as I wish for them knowing I will never have them. Maybe writing about it now will help me learn to squelch it beneath my heel and walk away from it, give up on it, leave it behind me. Sunday nights always seem to bring out the melancholy in me, so now is as good a time as any.

This is something that tends to start when you are young, and reading stories that unabashedly encourage it. I always harbored a deep skepticism of the fruition of wishes in such stories, even when I was young; I might have enjoyed reading them, but I did not believe in them. Wishes only came true when magic was involved, and magic wasn’t real. This only would really have been apparent to anyone who might have read the silly stories I wrote myself, as a young girl, because of the manner in which I was quietly visible through them. Like most children, I wrote obvious avatars of myself, though always vastly improved ones: I wrote about prettier, stronger, more feminine, braver, more happily-destined girls. They would often have my long blonde hair, they would wear my favorite colors, they would have pets with the same names as mine, but they would have lovely faces unlike mine, grace where I had none, resourcefulness and spontaneity in place of my stillness, my silence. They would run away from home to become someone I never would: someone you would want to read a story about.

I was the kind of little girl who wrote romantic endings to those other girls’ stories, for which you could, still, always, blame the wishing. I wrote them into adventures I would never have, love stories I knew I would never live. I wrote about brave, sweet boys falling in love with them, because I knew there would be no love story in the world outside pure fiction to ever include the real me. (In my first year of high school, a favorite art project was re-illustrating the original version of Snow White, which is, unsurprisingly, much more brutal than the Disney version. Three attempted murders, rather than just the one, and the Evil Queen wants rather bloody certainty that the prettier girl is dead.) In this world, boys and men would see other girls and women and hold their image in their mind as something to be remembered or admired; they would ask for their time and company, crave their attention, give them flowers, show them they were worth noticing. All my life I have stood separate from experiences like those, until I came to know how invisible I was. I knew even when I was young that I would grow up and grow old alone, with my naturally down-turned mouth and frightening eyes. I resented that I was brought up to hope for better or more, that I even wanted companionship or affection from others, that I couldn’t keep it in stories alone and safely away from me, that I couldn’t keep to my very separate self and not be left wanting, when I knew I would never get any of it. Some days I could slap myself across the face for all of it. So much fruitless, hopeless energy, all gone to waste.

Hope is a dangerous thing in a lot of ways. In its best form of power, it can break people through dark and unforgiving circumstances, giving them strength. In its worst, it can just hollow you out inside, with nothing to take its place. Wishing is a word that makes it sound more whimsical, and far less treacherous, than it is. Wishing can hurt you, wishing can destroy you; it can wrap its deceptive arms around you and turn you into the evil witch who hides in the dungeon, the cave. (Cut her heart out! Put it in a box! Maybe then she will finally be as empty as me.) She gets the best songs, but in the end she always dies. Wishing belongs in fairy tales, even the grim ones, when dropping a penny into a well and pouring a song into it can actually produce something in return. In real life, only shadows and echoes bounce back; everything else is just swallowed up in the dark.

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.

Neighbors

(Today’s WordPress prompt is slowly. I made my up this old street, through these memories, and through these photos, especially: slowly.)

I think back on these people now as the first and last neighbors I will ever have. I simply have no reason to anticipate ever inhabiting a neighborhood like the one I grew up in again. There will certainly never be a day when I own a house, and the neighborhood I was raised in was comprised entirely of them. The people who surrounded me as I grew, who I came to understand and recognize as my neighbors, were a part of that environment, and do not exist outside of it; they are only of that place and time. Since then, I’ve only resided in apartments, or my mother’s condo. She knows some of her neighbors now, but they are not mine. Even in the six long years I lived there with her, in much the same way I never made the room in that condo my own — never finished unpacking many of my possessions, never organized things in a more pleasing manner, never hung anything on the walls — those people were never my neighbors; they were hers.

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I drove slowly up and around that cul-de-sac, and was overcome by the knowledge that there was no one there who would know me. The sole remaining family from the 20-odd ones I once knew was not at home; the garage and windows were closed, no cars parked out front, no signs of life within. Even if there had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have stopped my car, let alone gotten out, walked up to the door, and knocked. If the man who used to fondly call me “Nori” were there, or the woman whose young son used to do his homework under my watchful eye had been at home, I don’t expect either one would have recognized me. The last they had seen me, I was a fresh high school graduate; tall and still rather rail thin, with the only curves to my appearance still lingering around my face. My hair was long, blonde, and messy, down or habitually tied up, stuffed away at the nape of my neck. It was nearing half my lifetime ago, and I would have been a stranger. Nothing of me was left.

I drove a slow lap, marking each house as I passed it. Next door to us, one of the few single-story homes on the block, was Irene’s house. She had long since moved away — I wasn’t even sure whether she was still alive, a realization that filled me with a mixture of guilt and dismay — but I could only think of the house as hers. Hers was the living room in which I had sat on the area rug, petting her old mutt whose name I had forgotten, but whose soft, matted fur I remembered still; hers was the kitchen sink in which I had washed out her watercolor paint brushes after watching her fill a canvas with a precision I would never have, longing to be a painter myself, knowing I never would be. Hers was always the first door I knocked on as a Girl Scout, knowing she would be delighted just to see me on her front step. Hers was the husband who died when I was only four; who I knew would die the day before, standing in our guest room — which would later become my mother’s, after my parents separated — looking out the window in the late afternoon light, seeing him standing in the driveway.  My parents hadn’t yet attempted to explain death to me, as much as you can ever explain it to a child, but standing in that room, looking down at him, without him seeing me, not even knowing he was sick, I knew he would not see him again.

The next door down had housed a family from Switzerland, so naturally my father had immediately befriended them, despite their having come from the German part of the country, and my father coming from the French; his nationalism never wavered in the face of any other factors. The father was odd, but he is the only one I remember, because I had worked for him for a summer, attempting to organize his extraordinary mess of a home office. Struggling to alphabetize his folders in their clunky filing cabinets, often having to guess at the first two or three letters of words, because his handwriting was all but illegible, and if I ever guessed incorrectly, he never told me. From one day to the next, he would change his mind about how he preferred his books to be arranged; one day by author, the following by title, other days by subject, and so on. He was paying me, and I have always loved books, so I didn’t mind moving them around all over again. I could sense I was glimpsing the remaining fragments of an unusual and perhaps extraordinary life, given the evidence in those drawers of the places he had been and the things he had done. I remember he was fond of me for being a reader, and for playing the guitar, which he had once taught himself. Apparently that was all it took, though I could never say I knew him, let alone the rest of his family, well. Of his wife’s face I have only a vague impression now, framed by her short brown hair.

The next house was the Day’s, and the aforementioned last standing of the original families, or so my mother had told me. Their older daughter Allison’s room was where I had once sat and listened to “Hummer” for the first time on her cassette, on one of the few occasions she ever acknowledged my presence in the house, before I was old enough to look after her younger brother Tyler. Thinking of him made me ache now; the last I’d heard of him was that he had fallen away from his family and into heavy drug use. I still could only think of him as the best behaved child I had ever babysat, and my favorite. I looked after him long enough that we established a routine; the same bus that I had once taken to the same grade school would stop at the end of the street, drop him off, he would walk up and let himself in the front door. I would be sitting in the living room, doing my homework, waiting for the sound of his key in the lock, and his endearingly, extremely low voice announcing “Hello,” to me and the house. He would make himself a bowl of Rice Krispie’s cereal, with a heaping spoonful of brown sugar on top, watch cartoons for a half hour on the floor between my feet, then go upstairs to his room to do his homework. He would bring it to me to check over when he was finished, and then ask my permission to go outside and play. The house was situated in such a way on the street that when he did, I could see him through the living room windows, and make sure he was safe. For a brief period his parents had attempted to use Ritalin to curb his attention deficit disorder, which apparently caused him to struggle in school, but all it did — and this hurt to remember, too — was turn him into a shell of a person, all personality, energy, and feeling removed. This experiment didn’t last long, thankfully, but I couldn’t help but think of it now, passing his old home, and wondering how that might have informed the place he found himself in now, and I had to turn away.

The next house had never had children attached to it, as far as I ever knew, and as a result, I never knew the inhabitants well. On a small street with 26 kids apart from me, it remained quiet and separate. The next belonged to my childhood best friend.

Josh had been born almost exactly a month before me, and his mother and mine were friends — and later, the church-going kind. Dawn often played Christian rock cassettes in her huge blue minivan when driving us to school some mornings, when one of us was too late to make the bus. They had us play together as babies while they talked in the evenings, and I do not remember a time, as a child, that I didn’t know him, his sisters, his parents, his backyard, his house. It all seemed to exist as simply a phantom extension of mine, as if the four houses between ours were not really there. His much older half-sister was a model, and a former Chargers cheerleader. His younger sister, Elisha, was a tremendous brat. His father was our baseball coach, when we were a little older. Dawn was the fiercest Tetris opponent I ever played, and I only ever managed to beat her once. Their garage never served as one for as long as I can remember; it had been carpeted, outfitted with a couch, shelving, and laundry room amenities, and the garage door was only ever closed at night, after the last member of the family had gone to bed; the rest of the day, kids in the neighborhood were free to wander in and out freely. The only video games I ever played as a child were played there, never having owned a gaming system myself. We played with his Batman figures and little green army men on the floor; we ran through the house playing extremely rough tag when left alone in the house, searched out junk food in the pantry, and watched crap on TV. We listened to comedy bits on cassette in his room, and climbed out his window to sit on the roof above the garage, which my mother never knew (and probably would have killed me for). We raced, bobsled and luge style, on his skateboards down the incline in the street, flying around the bend leading out to the bigger road, somehow not breaking anything or killing ourselves, ruining the soles of our sneakers, when we bothered to wear them at all.

His father had dragged out a regulation height basketball hoop to the head of the cul-de-sac — long gone now, of course — and we would play street hockey, HORSE, and small, short, half-court pickup games out in that communal circle outside his driveway. Without the hoop in the center, the street seemed lonely and empty, now. The yards were all different, too, and that in its own way felt like a loss. I had spent so many afternoons and nights, running back and forth between our houses, through the front yards, to my mother’s chagrin, so often, and so precisely, that I had worn with my long, athletic strides on my sure (usually bare) feet a perfect path between bushes, patches of dead grass, driveway, and front garden wall. I ran it so often I could have done it blind, but by now that was long since erased, too.

Next to Josh’s place was one that had housed a few families over the years, but I only really remembered Jaqueline, who I had tutored in reading when I was 12 and she was seven. Her parents ran a salsa company on the other side of the border, where they had moved from, and would often bring back baskets of the best green apples I have ever tasted. One year they were the house to host the block Christmas party, and, wanting me to learn something from her for a change, she taught me 16 standard Christmas carols on their piano. She seemed just as proud of me for playing them at the party that night as I was of her for all the progress she had made, though I would never play the piano again.

The most changed yard on the block, I noticed, was the one that had belonged to Chris’s family, another young boy I had looked after, and probably the next best behaved after Tyler. I had him to thank for becoming a fan of the Harry Potter books, as one night in the summer of ’99, he asked me to read the first chapter of the first book to him when he went to bed, and I stayed up to read the rest of the book before his parents came home. If I was looking after him on a Saturday night, I’d let him stay up late and we would watch SNICK. The best part of his house, however, was the humongous bush that had been planted in the front yard; a bush so huge, everyone had assumed for years it was a large tree with very low branches. On summer nights, after afternoons filled with water balloon fights and NERF gun wars, all the kids would drag various broken down cardboard boxes and pieces of old furniture into the darkness and play flashlight tag. The spotter would always climb up into that bush as high as they dared, armed with the high-powered camping flashlight, while the rest of us scrambled from one driveway at the crest of the street to the next, hunkering down together in bunches to avoid the light sweeping over us.

Most of the other houses on the opposite side of the upper half of the street I didn’t know well; the children who lived in them were younger, the parents not as close to mine. I’d recognize all of them during holiday block parties, but I don’t recall their names now.

Just across from ours, though, was Bill and Alice’s. It was the largest lot of property on the street, and Alice had taken full advantage of this, transforming the backyard into the finest garden I’ve ever seen, of the caliber that could’ve been — and was, at times — featured in a magazine. There were massive trees, rows upon rows of rose bushes, dozens of flowers whose names I never learned, patches of space dedicated to growing tomatoes, strawberries, and every type of herb; stone footpaths, even a couple of benches to sit on. She would let me come over whenever she was home, and I would often play around in the flowers, when I wasn’t sketching them. One afternoon I spent hours attempting a full picture of the entire garden, breaking all artistic rules of space and perspective to cram a sort of warped interpretation of a large place that seemed truly magical to me onto a single sheet of paper. She framed it and put it on the wall of their library, where Bill, a well-known local author, had put together a wonderful collection of books.

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Next to them was the house that my first cat had come from, where Kris the real estate agent had once lived, who spent her off time rescuing boxes of kittens from shelters, raising them until they were old enough to be given away to good homes. After she left, the Jones family moved in, who I often pet sat for when they would go out of town; happily looking after their big, dumb Labrador, their skittish, soft-as-a-cloud chinchilla, and their oldest son’s python.

A couple more childless houses I never saw the inside of much followed, then came Alex’s. As Josh and I grew older and grew apart, Alex moved to the street, and became my closest (female) friend in his place. Like me, she was a tomboy, though more brash and reckless. Though I didn’t come close to feeling anything like love until I was much older, I developed an embarrassing crush on her older brother, Dan, who had a garage band, and used to invite me to sing when they would play. I sang Fiona Apple songs when I was still a bit too young to appreciate their content, because I could mimic her closely, and wished I were older than I were; even then, wished someone might notice me. (He didn’t, of course. For much the same reasons why I’ve never been the recipient of flowers, jewelry, anonymous letters, or any gesture even mildly romantic — when I was younger, let alone now — I remained as much under his radar as that of anyone else, anywhere I went.) Fortunately, the crush didn’t have much potency to it, and didn’t last. Alex’s was the tiny back yard in which I first experimented with putting any effort into my appearance, attempted in any way to be girly. She would style my hair, put make-up on me, and we’d photograph each other as if we were models. We made silly short movies on her father’s camcorder, an activity that came to an abrupt end when, under her dramatic direction, I fell backwards out her bedroom window onto the roof of the garage, cracking three roof tiles with the force of my spine slamming into them. We would send each other “mail;” hand writing short, almost pointless letters in made up, pre-teen girl code, running up and down the street and stuffing them in one another’s mailboxes, giggling as one of us raised the red flags, so the other could look out her window and see there was something waiting.

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ground cover

There are more houses on the block, and one more down toward the corner, but none of them hold any lasting memory for me. It is just the right time of year to drive back through here; just before Halloween, when all the yard decorations have come out. Living on a cul-de-sac full of kids, within a much larger, circular street that housed even more, was prime territory for enjoying my favorite holiday. We all ran around in groups — my parents away on their anniversary dinner — knowing which houses were the best (particularly the woman at the end of the outer street who cleverly gave out cans of Hansen’s soda) for what sort of candy, which had haunted houses hiding in their garages, which yards we could tear through without being yelled at. I was strangely reassured to see that one patch of solid grass remained exactly where I remembered it, one I remembered running along with Alex for years, on our way to the housing development that was coming up across the main street, where we would sneak into the three furnished model homes when realtors weren’t around, coming up with elaborate fantasy lives that only existed then and there.

houseI circled back around and finally stopped at the place I’d saved for last: my old house. The front yard had been rendered nearly unrecognizable; a gangly, garish palm tree, of all things, now towered over it.

eucalyptus

All the grass had been torn out, and the beautiful eucalyptus trees that had been planted just before I was born, that I’d watched grow with me to tower and fill with murders of crows, had been torn out just after we’d sold it. The hillside looked bare and wrong without them, but the wall surrounding the backyard was exactly as I remembered it.

A five-and-a-half foot high wall of clay brick, I had stubbornly begun climbing it every chance I got, long before I was tall enough to see over the top, running along its narrow edge, terrifying my mother but never falling, sitting upon it and reading, blowing bubbles, watching the cars and people — the world — go by. I pictured the yard behind it, and could almost see it; the patchy grass my mother would drag our plastic kitchen chairs out onto to lay beach towels under and over to create a fort for me to hide out and read in, the budding ground cover my father had painstakingly planted once it became clear grass would never survive in the dry soil, the little rocks my cat loved to roll in when they were heated by the afternoon sun, the rose bush in the corner where my first dog was buried.

The morning he died was the first — and one of only three times to this day — I had ever seen my father cry. It was Easter Sunday morning, when I was six, and while I sat at the coffee table in the den, my knees curled up under the wood my father had crafted — a place I spent thousands of hours making art over the years, producing so much of it my parents affectionately nicknamed me “fire hazard” — several of our neighbors gave up their holiday morning church or party plans, left their own children to be watched by others, came over with shovels and a wheelbarrow and, without even being asked, helped us commit a small misdemeanor, and bury our dog. It was a wordless, selfless kindness the like of which, when I was that young, I had never before seen, and have seen very rarely since. When I think of what it means to call yourself someone’s neighbor, I think of that morning.

doorThe paint colors of the house itself — white and blue-gray — were unchanged, but one of the owners after us had painted over the distinctive red door. It had been a point of pride of my father’s, after he’d stubbornly fought the neighborhood council for months to get the color approved, and had always been used as a reference to anyone who came to visit: “It’s the blue and white house on the corner. Look for the red door.”

kitchen

kitchen2

I sat in my idling car, my eyes roving over every part of the façade, bombarded by memory. I saw my bedroom window, the window of my father’s home office, the living room window our Christmas tree’s lights once winked out of from between the curtains. The garage door behind which my father’s photo lab was built, where I’d learned to first use a camera, how to paint with light.

I thought back to my final weeks in the house, during which I photographed it obsessively; I was sure somehow I would forget everything about it once I stepped out the door, and wanted to record every detail. The living room carpet I’d built villages of Polly Pockets across, and rolled all over with my cat; the bar area that had never actually functioned as a bar, and ultimately filled with boxes of school and art papers and tracing paper animation studies; the kitchen counter my mother taught me to bake at; the sliver of parquet floor between the kitchen and den where I played elaborate games of marbles, as only a bizarre only child like me could have concocted, listening to my father’s records; the dust motes that would linger near the hallway banister upstairs as the sun set.

sunset3

sunset2

The bedroom that was mine; the room I did my beloved schoolwork in, the room I used our first home computer in and wrote horrendous fanfiction on as a teenager, the room I recovered from severe injury in, the room I looked out of in silence at the sky at sunset, my room, my room. My room. After leaving it, I never made a space mine again until over 10 years had passed.

Strangely, as I pulled away, my last thought was of the photo my father had taken of me, as I was going around attempting to preserve everything, not understanding that some part of me was trying to preserve the memories better, too; knowing my family and my home were splintering around me, in a way that would never be recovered. Things eventually would become better in other ways — my parents would get along better, my mother would be happier again, I would find a city to call mine — but I didn’t know this then. Maybe he also knew that, once we moved out, he and I would never have the sort of relationship as a family as we did under that roof; from this point on, we would exist in each other’s lives only as visitors. I would have no home in that city again.

17-4

He took the camera he had given me out of my hands at the top of the stairs, as the sun set, trying to catch the same perfect light I saw filtering through the windows behind the hanging lamp, and took the last photograph he ever took of me. I am tired out from weeks of packing up 17 years of a life, and my eyes are a little wet, though he cannot see this behind my glasses, nor would I ever have let him; my hair, uncharacteristically, is down in loose, messy waves around my shoulders; my smile is fleeting and sad. I know that when I take it back from him, I will walk down the stairs for the last time, and drive away, never to return. I look as if I might disappear from the picture if you look long enough. I look as though I am already gone.

A dear friend of mine is very fond of this piece, and when I came across the photos from the time period mentioned toward the end of it while organizing some files on one of my external hard drives, and though I’m no writer, I thought I might as well post it here, too, and include some of them. I realized, while browsing through them for the first time in many years, how closely my younger self had managed to capture the feel of my old house and life; I focused on small things I wanted to remember that might be less likely to remain than larger memories, details much to do with the way certain types of light during certain times of day came through which curtains, or struck which wall — the light in that house; it was so beautiful, especially during the golden hour. I even photographed myself a little, in a very specifically teenage-girl sort of way (bizarre, angled close-ups; it’s a common theme, when young women are attempting to figure out exactly what we really look like, coming of age in a society that objectifies and examines us so harshly and closely). Somehow, younger me knew exactly what sort of strangely personal images I’d want to revisit over a decade later, which I found oddly comforting to discover.

(Originally written December 2015, referencing an October 2015 visit to my hometown that included an impromptu solo drive through my childhood neighborhood. Personal photographs from April-June 2004.)

The guns of her mind aim a line

It’s been an interesting experience, this past month or so, forcing myself to really re-calibrate the negative pathways in my brain. Discovering that anxiety is at the core of basically everything that I struggle with has been a major illuminating factor, though that still doesn’t allow me to be lazy; understanding the ways in which my brain makes big things out of little things so easily if I don’t check it carefully isn’t enough to actually stop it happening. I have to listen to what it’s saying, recognize that it’s essentially lying to me like a big, neurotic jerk, and focus instead on the things I know or trust to be true.

Though I think everyone on earth must struggle to some degree with trust, I suspect it particularly affects those of us who grapple with anxiety, only because anxiety means there are a lot of things your brain is going to try to convince you of that you fundamentally cannot trust. It’s unsettling to have to recognize that your brain is, in many ways, the most effective liar you’ve ever known. (And I once knew a girl in junior high who literally pretended to be twins. And it worked, for, like, two weeks! That was so insane it was more impressive than anything, though.)  It’s hard work to learn when to stop yourself and say, “No. This is a ridiculous thing to think, and here is why.” With anxiety, your brain likes to lie because it is easy, and because it has gotten very good at it. And who doesn’t like doing what’s familiar and easy?

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Essentially, what I’m learning to do now is teach my brain an almost entirely new language, or at least a different dialect of what it’s been speaking to me for a very long time. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve, and I have stumbled a few times along the way, as those closest to me no doubt recognize, but I just keep pushing. Which is why I’m able to, today — even after entertaining a thought that was painful, then grappling with the realization that I had no actual reason to believe such a thing in the first place; even when dressed in a rush and not looking my best by any means — smile a relaxed smile, and breathe easier. It is a process, but it feels as though those atrophied muscles up in my big, silly head are slowly getting stronger.