Aurelia

Try whistling this…

27 December 2017; unexpected endings just around the corner (35mm film, taken by Manny).

I stepped unnecessarily carefully around a spent chrysalis — I suspect for a monarch butterfly — on a walk the other day, and in retrospect, should likely have recognized it for the sign it was. If not that, the strange dreams that have been visiting me should have been enough. Rebirth, renewal; change. Maybe a whiff of death about the fragile little shell that remained, shed and left behind.

In a little over 24 hours, yet another birthday will come (and go). I’m not particularly thrilled about it, and at this point only hope to get through it as unscathed as possible. I noticed growing wrinkles (albeit laugh lines) around my eyes, without even meaning to look, the other morning; I’ve already encountered at least one gray hair, though I suspect more lurk beneath the fading red dye. I entered my third decade of life last fall with fairly solid optimism, for a good host of reasons, but thread by thread, just about all of it has been stripped away from me, at times in great, cutting strips. Spring is about the last time I can recall feeling as though any of the ground beneath my feet was still solid enough to trust, and here now fall is already upon us. Some years, my birthday even falls squarely on the equinox. It has not been a good year.

I don’t typically assign much meaning to my birthdays, but a friend who celebrated her own just over a week ago suggested that she was “pretty happy to celebrate leaving this last year in the past,” and I could only emphatically agree with her. (My response: “I very much like the concept of leaving this year in the dust on my birthday rather than waiting for NYE. Can that be a thing? Can we just hit reset now? Because seriously, fuck this year.” Hers: “Right there with you. In any case, it can be a thing for us.”) So yes, I choose to leave the past year behind me. There is very little in it, and my memories of it, that I can look at now as worth salvaging. I’ve certainly weathered rougher ones, but it was unquestionably my worst since moving here five years ago. I don’t care to struggle through another like it. I have learned from it (albeit painfully), but all I wish to do now is move past it.

I refuse to give up hope, though I have been greatly tempted to at many points leading to now; just because some things I had come to trust and believe in have failed me of late does not deter me entirely, and I still hold on to my hopes as best I can. But I can see now that many of them are going to have to be wrapped up in a casing of their own, shiny and hard, ideally to reemerge at some date in the future, though likely not any time soon. If, right on the heels of this birthday, I have the loneliest holiday season I’ve ever encountered approaching, too — not guaranteed, but looking more possible by the day — I need to shore up any reserves to prepare as well as I can manage for it now. I know now that any rebuilding of myself, any repairs to the damage I’ve incurred, the losses my fears have cost me, will have to be done in the solitary space of my own mind, as I wrap myself up to protect what I can, and hopefully transform myself into something better, to emerge on the other side. I know fairly well what I want to be, and how strong my desire is to become it. How long the wait between pupa and imago may be, there is obviously no way to know; I just have to continue to be patient, to wait, to continue working my best at acceptance.

I cannot change where I’ve ended up, nor undo what got me here — neither the mistakes that are my own fault, nor those that are not — and there is no moving backward in time. I refuse to believe any losses are permanent; I’m not old enough (yet) to feel quite so jaded. May as well take advantage of the ability to still believe in better things ahead while it still beats away somewhere in there, even if that means secreting it away behind a dark, tough little cocoon for some time, before it’s safe to once again stretch my wings out again.

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

Ash over sunrise (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

via Daily Prompt: Continue

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.

Eschscholzia californica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

But I could not stem the tide of overwhelm, and thirst…

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Bernie Grundman Mastering Studios (Hollywood), and me (maybe).

His beard had grown in heavy, but he still looked as though he might be a little younger than me. He was dressed all in black, and so was I. I was walking up to the corner he was standing sentry on, where cars pull through, impatiently honking, California stop-rolling across the white line, just coming off the freeway. It was already dark out, and I was frowning down at my phone, trying to compose a message while walking. In the dark, the glare of the phone screen can wipe out much of my peripheral vision, like being encased in a dark bubble, nearly blind, if I am not careful. He had a coffee can in his hand, which he extended out toward the cars, shaking it slightly, but it was not an aggressive rattle; asking quietly for help, not wanting to be impolite. Without a home, but not wanting to make a fuss about it.

I am alarmingly broke by this time of the month; I already know my rent will be paid late. An unexpected expense, as they so often do, caught me off guard the week before, and I was able to just barely handle it at the time, but knew it would leave me in a bind almost immediately after, and now I am in it. This happens often enough that I can’t even pretend to be surprised by it; I am merely tired. I rarely carry cash as it is, because in my experience, those of us on the poor end of the scale don’t do well to have too much of it on hand; it seems to flow away even faster that way, and you’ve already started with so little. I grow too tired of attempting to recall all at once how much of both it, and digital sums in my account, I may or may not have. Having no safety net to speak of means constant vigilance, and it is exhausting. One balance to worry about at a time is more than enough.

Tonight, unusually, I had a few remaining dollar bills from another day with me, and a bit of change. I reached into my jacket pocket and handed what I had left to him. He didn’t seem to expect it, as I was on foot, approaching from behind his area of focus, so I folded it into his hand instead, while in his other the can remained extended away from us, still outstretched toward the freeway off-ramp. It’s hard for me, nearly impossible, to not give what little I have, on the rare occasion I do pass someone out on the street when I actually have something on hand to give. I’ve been far too close to homelessness myself on too many occasions — even now, I’m only really one or two more unexpected, more disastrous expenses away from it happening, and it’s always in the back of my mind. Growing up with no upward mobility in sight, reaching 30 and still having none, will do that to you. You don’t imagine success; you merely, by long, tiresome instinct, try to anticipate the impossible, to avoid disaster.

I also know, though, that little if nothing separates me from him. In all likelihood he can easily be a more talented, smarter individual than I, and that still could not keep a roof over his head. I know enough about bad luck and circumstance, about how expensive it is to be poor, to know this. He thanks me, and I tell him I hope he has enough layers to keep warm tonight. It’s been very, California desert-like, bone-chill cold this winter, in the night, and dampness from yesterday’s spots of rain still lingers in the air. He nods at me. He does not smile, but his eyes are kind, underneath the exhaustion and wariness.

He is looking right at me. I wish him a good night, but he calls after me: “You’re very beautiful!” I say thank you, because I am too flustered by what preceded that to know what else to say. He says again: “You are very beautiful. Have a wonderful evening!”

I am flustered by being looked at, by being seen. It happens so rarely, I never know quite how to react on the few occasions that it does. The understanding I saw in his face, I think, came from that. So many people let their eyes slide over those less fortunate than them, because it’s the simplest way to avoid guilt, or unpleasant thoughts. He looked at me the way one invisible person looks at another; like two ghost ships crossing the same stretch of sea in the night. He was surprised to be seen, and so was I.

I often wonder what it must feel like, to be truly visible to people, never having been much myself. I’m old enough now, and have tried enough approaches, to know that carrying myself differently, pretending different attitudes, projecting confidence I don’t have: none of it makes any difference. Nothing really hides the sort of person I am underneath artifice, which is more like a shadow than a person, or often feels that way. In groups that have to narrow out, I will always end up bringing up the rear, when people naturally arrange themselves. In groups in general, I can’t penetrate beyond the outside edge, whether I would like to or not. I know this is why a particular passage (among so many others) from one of my favorite books struck me so hard the first time I read it, and every time after, because it speaks to that complete lack of visibility — not as an object taking up space or blending into scenery, but as a perceptible person — in such an unflinching manner:

I saw myself for the first time as a thing, a thing in someone else’s mind. Of course I had always acknowledged my body, the fact of my visibility, but I had not been a thing, really, because I had been of no use. A pebble is a thing, a blade of grass is a thing, the broken thread in an old binding. But no one holds these things in mind, they exist in solitude. In privacy. I had known myself to be a perceptible object, a serviceable body, unlovely, unugly, unremarkable. Plain and capable, I moved through the perceptible world, and people nodded and asked questions and sometimes shook my hand, but no one, no one shrank me, remembered me, kept my image prisoner, arranged my body in poses, put words in my mouth, imagined me, used me, used me, like a spread-legged thing in a magazine, like a thing. I had not known until this moment, really, I had not believed that anyone had this power.

I think about it also, often, through the lens of the conundrum of being a woman in the world; a place where we are typically, naturally, unconsciously reduced to objects, despite not wanting to be, and yet still wanting to be seen, because that passage — that book — is very much about that, too. How often I’ve wondered how much of my desire for visibility comes from my own self, and how much has been forced upon me since a time before I was even conscious of it; whether reconciling those conflicting poles is even possible. There is a creative man I know, who claims to think of me often, but I wonder to what degree the fantasy he’s made of me in his mind can possibly have anything truly to do with me; he does not, at the end of the day, and after so long, know me all that well. I nearly had a run-in of some sort with another man just yesterday, which I was thankful to dodge; I have no idea what he might have wanted to say to me, but I know that I was never of any consequence to him, that merely by attempting to communicate with him at one time, I was already a burden, because I was so easily forgotten otherwise; even beyond that, he made sure to make it clear to me how little attention, time, or notice I was really worth to him. None of which surprised me, of course. He was simply following the narrative of my life that nearly all others before him had done. That’s not a plot twist; that’s merely one more day of being an indistinguishable piece of the scenery. All I really wondered, in the end, after so much wasted time, was why he had bothered with the charade in the first place; that he’d seen anything at all. Just a glitch, before the inevitable course correct.

I’ve held, and still do, a shamefully deep envy for those not just more fortunate than I as far as things like financial stability and certainty of self are concerned, but also just of those who are seen. I’m often quite sensitive to being treated by others as nothing much more than a piece of furniture or window dressing, despite being used to it, but have no means of correcting it. What would it be like, to move through the world and be regularly taken notice of? To have demands made on my time by those who wanted it, truly wanted my attention, rather than constantly having to remind others, even those with the best of intentions, that I am, in fact, still here? (They generally do mean well, and I know this; they just can’t help it. I certainly don’t resent them — how can I? If so few others really see me, why should I expect more from them? I try not to. Expectations like those would be the death of me. I may not be a pessimist, but I am no optimist.) I try simply to not draw any attention to it; it’s why I don’t do things like sit down and send a message to an old best friend I am no longer close to, acknowledging that we really are no longer close at all. What good would speaking to that in the open do? I understand it; he is not the first to, almost seemingly by accident or forgetfulness, just leave me behind. I look at all the people I know who actually have to juggle plans with more than one person at a time, and can’t even begin to fathom what it must feel like, having that as a problem. (To exist in such a space that you would even consider that a problem? Unfathomable.) Do mirrors reflect them differently? Do they somehow appear more substantial? I only know they exist on an entirely different plane of existence from mine. Those things happen to characters in films and books, to the more charismatic and consequential people I know in my life, but never to me. I feel myself, inwardly, goggle at them like one might view a separate species through the glass of an impenetrable display case.

But, earlier: It felt nice to be seen. It felt a little strange; sometimes, in certain periods, when it has been a long time since the last instance, it feels almost alien. But it isn’t a bad strangeness; it seems to root me somehow more closely to the earth. I feel less as though I am simply floating from one place to another, leaving nothing tangible behind; I feel more like the world does exist even with me included in it, too, every now and then. He smiled a little at me when I turned back a final time, and I wondered whether he must have felt the same.

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.