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

Ash over sunrise (Rancho Peñasquitos, October 2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

via Daily Prompt: Continue

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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.

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.

Late fall

This can be a very specifically melancholy time of year for me, while at the same time I enjoy the feel of the season and the weather more than probably any other time. Growing up in Southern California, never having lived anywhere else, I can easily say that our verisons of the fall and winter seasons are the period I enjoy most. And yet, I somehow forget in the warmer months, but am inevitably reminded every year once again in the midst of the colder ones, that I seem cursed to remember too many things — things that are particularly tied to this time of year in my mind — that can be both wonderful and painful to remember, or simply make me ache. Sometimes I deeply hate it. But, though I’m quite sure it’s only me now who does — those of us who are easily forgotten always seem to have far sharper memories than everyone else around us — it seems I remember everything. And sometimes, one of them will take hold of my mind, wrapping itself around me by the throat, constricting it with emotion held back. It can even become difficult for me to swallow; my eyes will well up until I stubbornly blink it all back.

Late last night, despite the impending return of more unwelcome heat due later in the week, I was surprised to discover it raining, slowly, drops trickling down through the trees out back so softly I nearly missed the sound, as if they were falling almost accidentally. It dropped me suddenly backward in time as I poked my fingers through the living room blinds, in that way memories return so much more immediately to me in this season, to years earlier, when I was just getting settled into my first place. When I had moved here, it was late September and still unbearably hot at times, but by the time I was just finally starting to tentatively poke my frightened roots into the cracks in the concrete to see whether they would accept or reject me, little pockets of rain were beginning to burst over the city. If I had found enough of my way through those cracks, I hoped it might water me, too; maybe it would let me grow. I was still too afraid to allow myself to hope. I’ve so often been bitten back by life for hoping for anything, it’s still something I almost seem to punish myself for feeling, though I’m learning to at least curb that instinct somewhat. Even then, in spite of myself, it was slowly blossoming inside me, daring to insist I belong here, in a way I had never belonged anywhere.

I fell back still further to a particular night then, a little later in the year; one of the more (if not most) important ones. It had threatened with gray clouds all day then, too, but seemed noncommittal, only to finally burst out in a little pocket of droplets like surprise party confetti late in the night. After moving inside among the false neon warmth to keep dry, we had gone out to walk back along the dark, slick, glistening streets, red and green and yellow lights winking at us from the ground. There were still little beads of water left shining on the hood of my car, though the parking ticket — my first — was defiantly dry. But back then, though I should have, I couldn’t even care. My hand was warm and something large and new and terrifying and deeply life-altering was beginning to yield like the halves of an oyster’s shell, peeking open inside my chest to reveal some hidden pearl.

Sitting here last night, before the rain came, in the same spot I write this from this morning, I read one of those sentences in a book that sneaks up on you and devastates you with a longing so deep and specific and almost desperate that it physically hurts. I was at work, but I could have cried. For a moment, I thought my near-constant stoicism might crack a bit and I actually would.
But I stubbornly swallowed it back, as I always try to do, and — along with the rain, by this morning — it had gone back, hidden away somewhere unseen, though sure to reemerge, just as the cold soon will.