Acceptance

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Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephon’s delightful 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail.

People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they’re saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all… has happened.

I find my mind revisiting this quote more often than ever recently. As with many things that the late, great Nora wrote (particularly under the guise of her charming, timidly brave little bookseller character struggling to make sense of her “small life,” Kathleen Kelly), it resonates with me deeply on a personal level, while simultaneously serving as a reminder for something I’d do well to be more conscious of.

There’s been a lot of change in my life of late, and not all of it of the kind I have liked much at all, but it is all equally inescapable, because that is simply how change works. One of my greatest projects this year, in terms of scope and difficulty, has been practicing something more akin to what is often called “radical acceptance,” because really the only surefire way to tackle the heart of anxiety is to surrender as much of the illusion of control as possible. In reality, all I can control in my life — and even then, it’s a pretty tenuous concept of control — is my own reactions to whatever I encounter while living it, both mentally and emotionally. It’s a daily struggle, as is everything else when laboring under anxiety and various other fun little neuroses, but it’s the best anyone can do, including myself. Part of being gentler with myself on the whole includes accepting these things, rather than pretending I’m supposed to, for some inexplicable reason, be stronger or tougher or more capable than anyone else. As my favorite musician once sang, “I will do what I can do.”

Besides, as another great writer, Junot DĂ­az, once wrote, “I guess it’s true what they say: if you wait long enough everything changes.” When I’m being overly critical of myself, I often like to paint hope as foolish, but the truth is, waiting on changes of a more positive type, perhaps even for things I still dare hope might happen (however unlikely they may be at the moment) — so long as it’s not the only thing I’m doing — is far from the most ridiculous way of spending some of my mental energy. Better that, than concentrating on talking myself out of hope. That makes it far too easy for other negative thoughts to creep in, especially those about myself, and in learning to fend those off better, too, I’m just less inclined to entertain them.

I have a whole little list of reminders saved on my Keep (notes) app on my phone, and I’ve found that taking a moment to re-read it every day has been a rather helpful habit to get into — along with others I’ve been stricter about lately (exercising, standing up straighter, being more consistent about my skin care, watching my breathing patterns, meditating before bed, being more mindful of my anxious thoughts whenever they might start to rear their heads, etc.). They are fairly short, though the full list is about 30 items long. Then again, it does seem to be the simplest things that, in the end, are making change a bit easier to deal with. As ever, one day at a time.

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The afternoon sun slants through the blinds; sometimes there is a birdcage hanging in the window, a towel covering most of it, obscuring a wildly excitable parakeet, and other times there is not. I sit in the stuffed chair, and the boy sits between my feet, on the floor, in front of the coffee table and the television, Toonami on the screen and a bowl of Rice Krispies cereal buried in brown sugar in front of him. He finishes off his after-school snack and his episode of Ronin Warriors, and heads upstairs to work on his homework. I’m left alone in the family room, waiting for Sailor Moon to come on, doing homework of my own. He is either in grade school, or junior high. I am in the latter; at other times, high school. Later, he’ll ask to go play outside at the round, dead-end of our cul-de-sac, by the communal basketball hoop, where I can keep watch from the living room window, while reading on the couch. Few of these details will change much, from one day to the next, year to year. The shadows fall and move across the wall as the day wears on, until his parents come home later, before dinner. The curtains are always open. No matter how familiar it might become, there is a certain kind of quiet that only surrounds your ears in someone else’s house.

Looking back on afternoons like these, I can’t possibly count how many there were. I babysat him for years. He was very quiet, and so was I; at his age, I spoke even less. His older sister played “Hummer” for me off her Siamese Dream cassette — by which I mean she let me hover in the doorway of her bedroom upstairs while it played, and she ignored me. When you are so habitually quiet, this is easy for people to do. Their parents let me use the internet on their home computer, years before we had one in ours. His father called me Nori. I’d sit in his office and chat with my best friend Matt on AIM while we played goofy online games. I possess — always have, still do — a very odd sort of sentimentality about things, and in a binder somewhere packed away, I still have a few printouts of some of those chat logs. (I couldn’t tell you why I printed them out then, nor now. I just did.) So much, of so little.

Maybe things have always felt as if they may slip away from me at any time, even when I was young, and I’ve always attempted to capture what memories I could in whatever strange places I could enmesh them. I’ve never been able to justify this feeling, but I think it must always have been with me. I have a very sharp visual (and aural) memory, almost eidetic. I have a couple of boxes hidden away in my room even now, in my 30s, associated with certain people, filled with such random objects and pieces of paper. When processing crime scene photos in college, I often morbidly wondered what a stranger would make of all the tiny, seemingly random little nothings that comprise a life and litter my small spaces in the world, when I would one day inevitably leave them behind; the things that shaped and tethered me, removed from context in death, left with nothing more to do but be thrown away, forgotten, to gather dust. There is a bittersweet little matchbook sitting one of my shelves of knick-knacks at home, and I can tell you exactly who gave it to me, and when, and how it felt to me then to receive it. Considering what a nothing object it is, long forgotten by anyone but me, this can seem awfully absurd. I have no explanations or excuses for my brain doing these things. I often wish it wouldn’t.

Slow afternoons as a child and young adult feel so different to look back on, let alone compare to what slow days feel like in adulthood. I suspect this is mostly to do with the same reason why any other passage of time feels so different the older you get, why time seems to fly through an hourglass the more it passes. When you are a child, an afternoon represents a much larger chunk of the time you’ve lived up to that point than it would today. Birthdays, holidays, vacations, they all seem so much further apart; and to you, at that time in fact, they are, in a way they never will be again. I don’t remember afternoons dragging, to me, as a child — but I’m sure that they must have! children can be some of the most impatient beings on earth — I only remember them now as if they are warm, quiet, heavy moments, like flies suspended in amber. This effect, which can only exist in hindsight, may also be tied in to the general lack of obligation that children can enjoy, up to a point — we do usually have to go to school, but until I began working at 15, that was the main structure around which my whole life existed; everything else was flexible, open, and so free to be wasted. I must have whiled away hundreds, if not thousands, of afternoons in that living room, with that little boy, with very little changing. And yet then, just as now, time was passing; my gawky limbs were lengthening and lines were already beginning to form on my face — we were growing up, growing older. Growing old. These days, any slow passage of time takes work to appreciate and enjoy, if my head is not in the right space. I can easily look at it as wasted, stagnant, lonely, and with regret. What other things could I have been doing? Productivity is such an ugly word. I imagine this may be one of the great things that kills so many artists once they begin to grow up. Productivity is where daydreams flatten out into nothing, where mindless doodling goes to die.

Summer is here now, which is a largely meaningless season outside the construct of school, as work doesn’t have an off-season (or at least, not for most of us). The air is heavy with heat, and the light is golden and sharp on the eyes. I wish I had grown to accept and thrive more in isolation then than it seems I ultimately did — it is a much more uphill battle now, sometimes, particularly as my solitude increases of late. This uncomfortable place between a restless mind and a peaceful one is likely the biggest place for my anxieties to hide and thrive. Whatever losses I did — and still do — mourn recently, I am much better at tackling it than I have been in several years, to be sure. There was definitely some adjustment necessary, learning to be alone in a much bigger, darker, more wide-open city. Walking around it alone is essential, and I always should be doing more of this. But there will probably always be a part of me that envies my younger self — she will crawl out of dark corners like a snake — and her ability to pay far less attention to time passing, most of all to those countless hours passed alone.

Some of us will always stay behind

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

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

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

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.