Bumper

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.

Sliding scale of value

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Sunset on Vermont, East Hollywood
December 2015 © Eleanore Studer

Had something of a revelation today, while texting with a lovely and supportive friend (and hopefully not distracting her too much from actual work in the process). I already can’t recall whether it arrived in mind because of something specific she said, or just came as a result of having an illuminating conversation that allowed me space to see things I otherwise have trouble seeing about myself; perhaps it was a combination of both.

I’ve spent a long time — possibly my entire consciously developing life, since leaving the relatively carefree period of childhood  (pretty early, as most gifted and overly intellectual children tend to do) — struggling with self-worth. I will be harder on myself than any other person apart from me could possibly ever be, and criticize myself more harshly, too. It’s a big part of what gives me so much trouble forgiving anything I do or say that I perceive as a mistake. I’ve tried what feels like countless ways attempting to combat this, and re-frame my way of viewing myself. But when messaging with this friend today, I had a new thought that seems quite obvious in retrospect, but is nonetheless an angle I’ve never tried for handling this issue.

We were talking about our issues that we can be most sympathetic with between each other, due to whatever similarities they might have, and when she mentioned being a “caretaker” and having to learn to divorce her own self-worth from the concept of that burdensome “job” she assigned herself with people, I countered that I tend to view myself in terms of “usefulness” (e.g. if I find ways to make myself of use to people, they’ll be less likely to abandon me when I really need them). Guilt has all ways of finding me, and “Maybe I didn’t do enough” is a familiar refrain of that same old song of mine. (“You can never do enough” is what it turns into when things get much worse.) We moved on to discussing learning to recognize and acknowledge negative thinking and self-criticism; learning to call yourself on it, even if, for the moment, you’re not able to correct it, and recognizing it is the best you can manage… And I guess that got me thinking.

Maybe, as opposed to attempting to attack low self-worth head on, it’s a problem that needs to be approached in a more roundabout way. Maybe that makes it easier to work through, or at least less daunting and seemingly impossible. I realized suddenly how easy it is for me to view things I do for others as worthwhile, but how hard it is for me to accept any time I spend on myself as the same. I always frame my own time in terms of usefulness, too — did I get enough work done? did I get the work done I wanted to get done handled the way I wanted? was I productive? — and if it feels as though it wasn’t useful, that can make me feel like a failure. If I were to assign a visual to the value of my time, it would be a sliding scale, and most of the time, the way I see things, time spent on myself inevitably falls to the bottom. Maybe I need to try going at it almost backwards. Instead of fixing self-worth first, and judging how I spend my time less harshly as a result… maybe learning to value myself better can start, among other things, from learning to view whatever time I spend on myself as valuable, regardless of how productive (or not) it is.

I realize this will still be hard. None of this comes to me naturally or easily, and it can be exhausting sometimes. It won’t stop me from a genuine desire to do for and give my best to the people most important to me, because that’s one of my instinctive, natural ways of expressing love and care. But maybe trying to learn this concept of framing my own time and its value might be at least slightly less difficult than what I’ve tried for myself in the past. I suppose there’s really only one way to find out.

I’d say, “It’s a start,” in order to wrap this up, but that really isn’t true of a process you’ve been struggling with for over two decades. Maybe all I can say is, “It’s an idea,” and for now, that will have to be good enough.