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.

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.

fluffy

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.

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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.

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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.)

Disordered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reminder: Every Day…

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

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

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

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