Saturday, August 23, 2014

In yoga tonight, J asked us to think about our roots. She asked us what is fundamentally at the core of who we are. I've been thinking about this a lot lately for a couple reasons. Some of what I went through this summer caused me to call my chosen profession in the academic world into question. And spending the summer in my hometown in Colorado caused me to call my future place of residence into question.

I am someone who depends on certainty, even when it doesn't exist. I manufacture it. I proclaim it constantly. When I am wrong about something of which I was certain, I have a hard time reconciling my convictions with reality. I have a hard time admitting I could possibly have been wrong. And then, when I do finally admit I was wrong, I lose all faith in everything. Temporarily. I live in extremes. I have spent the past few years trying to work myself into gray areas, but so far that's really just manifested itself in my compiling a mostly gray wardrobe. It's getting better, but it's a process.

I have always been certain that I want to be in academia. I have also, for the last two years, been certain that I want to spend the rest of my life in Los Angeles. We've talked about this before. You know this about me. But after this summer, I fell out of love with academia and in love with Colorado all over again, and it sent me into a tailspin of self doubt and confusion. Fortunately, this wasn't necessarily an uncomfortable tailspin because I was so enjoying my time in Colorado and loved talking to friends about non-academic career possibilities. But it was unsettling. And for the past several weeks I've been trying to determine exactly what it is that is at the root of who I am.

Tonight, the word that kept coming to me with every breath, every movement, was love. Love is what is at the root of me. Love is what defines me. Or, more specifically, my capacity to love, my desire to love, my ability to give all of myself and more to my friends, my family, my communities, my students, my lovers. I love so deeply, I often feel I can't act in ways that satisfy my loving impulses. If it sounds like I'm being self-congratulatory, know that I am not. Part of me views this root, this love, as a blessing, because it allows me to deeply feel for and connect to others. But most of me views this root as problematic because it makes me vulnerable to the immense amount of pain I've felt in my life. I have always loved too much. I have always given too much. I am always the one in the relationship who fights harder, does more, gives everything, even when I shouldn't. Sometimes in my friendships, this effort is reciprocal. Often it is not. That is ok. I am perfectly content to be loved by my friends in whatever way they love me, and that love of theirs is often astounding to me, because I have such incredible people in my life who are my everything. But when it comes to loving a significant other, I find myself in a mess. Though I suppose I haven't always chosen the most open, most committed of partners. In fact, I tend to choose the opposite. Because as deeply as I love others, I also value my freedom, am terrified of being vulnerable, am terrified of loss, and choose to go after people with whom I immediately feel a distance that I want to bridge with my love, but who I also want to be able to run from when I get that desert feeling inside.

[A note on vulnerability: often my friends and family tell me I am too open about things in my life, that I over share. I agree. I'm not sure what that impulse is in me, but I also don't care enough to examine it. I have never suffered from over sharing. Or at least not that I'm aware of. Because I don't think over sharing is an act of vulnerability. If anything, I think it is the opposite. It is a lot of, look at all my feelings so I can carefully hide certain other feelings, even from myself. I will be vulnerable here, in words, on the internet, and it feels safe because I don't know who reads this. I will be vulnerable in conversation, even with strangers, because I don't know how not to be. I cannot stand in front of you and do and say nothing, though. I cannot be that. I cannot stand in front of you and ask you to love me. Never.]

My point is, I discovered tonight that my root is love. I have other roots. Stubbornness. Curiosity. Neuroses. Anxiety. Excitability. Hopefulness. Loyalty. Skepticism. But love is the root that most defines a lot of other aspects of my life. My friendships, my chosen profession, my attachments to the places where I have spent time. After I returned from Colorado, I synthesized a lot of my thoughts and conversations and I have come to the following conclusions about myself, my roots: In my inner most self, I am a teacher. Teaching is the most important thing to me. Not, like, in a general way. In a very specific way. In the way that I do it now, and in the way that I intend to do it for the rest of my life, in whatever capacity I am able. Even if I leave academia, I will do so to teach. In my inner most self I am also a lover. My roots are in Colorado, but that doesn't have to be where I end up. It just has to be a place where I spend a lot of time, again, in whatever capacity I am able. Los Angeles, too. I would like to be certain about all of this.

I've been writing a lot of rambling posts this month. I think it's because I've been asking myself so many questions, and in writing, I work toward some answers. Not an answer, because I don't think there is one. But answers that make me feel calmer, more resolved, more certain, but also less stubborn about that certainty.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Los Angeles is charming as fuck. The day I got back here, my blood and bones longed for the mountain air and rainfall and wide open skies I'd just left. My East Hollywood neighborhood seemed crowded and chaotic and heavy and dirty and dry and I was overwhelmed. But last night I was driving home from my friend's comedy show at The Groundings in West Hollywood, and it was near midnight, and it was dark, and it was a Tuesday, so there were hardly any cars on the road, and I took Melrose to La Brea to Santa Monica, and I felt all those feelings I used to feel when I moved here two years ago. Possible and open and free.

I wanted to move here for so long. My ex lived here and I'd visit him and the lushness of this place, the endless opportunities and events and things to explore baffled me in a way I'd never been baffled before. New York was always just the idea of New York for me, but Los Angeles was real. I refused to refer to it as LA for a long time because I loved this person so much that I couldn't abbreviate the name of the place where he lived. It seemed wrong. And it wasn't my place. It was this distant place that I yearned for so badly, and I had to respect it and call it by its full and proper name. I did not belong to it and it did not belong to me, and a nickname felt premature. Roxane Gay has been tweeting a lot about her love for Los Angeles lately, and watching her long for here reminds me so much of my own longing. There is so much more to this city than people who don't live here ever seem to understand. It is Hollywood and movie stars and glamour and glitter and flashing lights, yes. And these things have a novelty to them that is still never quite lost on me. But there is also the ocean and the beach culture and the relaxed life style that seems to permeate parts of the west side. And there's the sparks and fireworks that are the most exciting, most artistic parts of this city. And there is the East Side, which feels so much like the Latin American homes I've had in my life, which is why I live over here, farther from the ocean, closer to myself.

The week I moved here, I drove over to an area of the city called Frogtown to buy an incredibly expensive dresser made of reclaimed wood from an artist I found on etsy long before. I'd coveted this dresser for years, and I finally decided that as a reward to myself for not only getting into a PhD program, but for finally getting to have the life I'd so often dreamed about, a life in LA, that I was going to buy myself this dresser. I went to his shop, over which was his apartment where I signed for my purchase and arranged delivery. He told me about Frogtown. How a lot of people who are even from Los Angeles don't know what it is. When my handmade dresser was complete, the artist himself delivered it to my apartment in East Hollywood. We moved it around my wood floor with the furniture blankets I'd still had sitting in my front yard from unpacking my things after my move. I gave him the entire stack of blankets when he left because he makes furniture for a living, and I'm not planning to move again any time soon.

I've had so many small experiences here that have shaped my understanding of this place. I've grown to know it in a way I've never grown to know another city. This is hard to explain, but where I'm from and in places I've lived, things are a lot bigger and a lot less crowded. There's more money, and when landscapes change, when buildings or developments or areas change, there's usually enough money in the project to raze an entire area and start new. But here, space is so limited and there's a lot of money but there's also a lot of trying to get by on very little amounts of money, and so when things change, they're not as often completely overhauled. Things have history here. The pavement has history. My neighbors who live in the apartment complex next to mine showed me a little square piece of concrete in the dirt in front of the gate around my complex last year. They told me it used to be a pay phone. This strikes me as incredibly confusing because I live in a neighborhood. I don't live on a street where there are any commercial developments. Just apartments and an elementary school. And this pay phone used to be in the middle of two apartment complexes. They told me the city had it removed after too many people had been shot while using it. And in South Central, where I go to school, you can still find remnants of barricades from the riots that happened decades ago.

Every day that I ride my bike to school, there are three people that I pass who I remember because they are always there: Man with Shopping Cart on Temple Street, Waving Balcony Man, and Parking Attendant Man. My second big hill on my ride to school is up Temple Street at Hoover and many days, I pass a homeless man with a shopping cart who is always really nice and smiles at me and I smile back and we tell each other to have a nice day and he tells me, "you can do it!" because at that point I'm usually out of breath struggling up that hill. He probably thinks of me as Strange White Girl on Bicycle. Then I finish the hill and turn the corner and there's Waving Balcony Man. He always waves. Always. And smiles. At first he smiled a little, but the more often he saw L & me, the more he'd smile. Then there's the parking attendant on Commonwealth who I only see when I ride in early, but who always bows his head to me when I smile at him and say "good morning."

This summer, I was riding home from my summer class one day and Waving Balcony Man was on the street corner. He and I had never spoken a single word to each other, but he immediately came up very close to me and pulled down the collar of his white t-shirt and showed me the area over his heart. There was a protrusion with blackish purple stitches. Like he'd had a pace maker implanted or something. He told me he was at the hospital. He said something about his heart. He was speaking English, but not well. So I spoke to him in Spanish, but he would only respond to me in English, and neither of us had a good enough grasp on the others' language to completely understand each other. He seemed tired and scared. For months I'd been planning to buy a DSLR camera so I could come shoot his portrait. But then I went to Mexico. And then I went home. And now I'm back and I haven't seen him and there are no longer chairs on the balcony and I'm scared that whatever was wrong with his heart took him away.

I have fallen in love with the parking attendant in my Los Feliz Trader Joe's parking lot. I have fallen in love with the delicious smelling restaurant on Hoover and Washington that I've never been to because I'm always on my way to school when I bike past it. I have fallen in love with buying sea salted caramel iced lattes at Dogtown and walking two blocks down to the ocean to drink them with the waves and sand at my feet. I have fallen in love with driving home from my best friend's old apartment through abandoned and silent downtown LA at two in the morning. I have fallen in love with my quiet neighborhood in Sherman Oaks where I go every Sunday evening to do yoga. I have fallen in love with the way the air touches my skin at night. I have fallen in love with the constant searchlights coming from locations I don't even know signifying events I'll never attend.

It's taken me a week or so to replace the mountain air in my lungs with ocean air. But I'm here now. Breathing salt. Listening to the sounds that sing me to sleep in my bungalow just east of Hollywood, just west of the LA river, just north of downtown, just south of the mountains or the hills that rise up and separate here from the Valley. It has taken me a week or so, but I remember now that this, too, is home.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In a weekend that spanned two months, I visited my brother in upstate New York. At the end of July, we flew to New York City where I once again felt at home amongst my upper east side streets and delis, only to be ripped away 24 hours later and driven to the Hudson Valley in the backseat of a car that looks like the car my grandpa bought when he was still alive, but isn't that car, even though this car, too, had license plates with his initials. I filled my short 18 hours in Manhattan with as much of that place as I could: dinner at an Italian restaurant up the street, deep breaths while absorbing 15th floor views of the city's eastern shores, ice cream on 86th Street, drinks with my hometown girl and her husband, lox from Sable's, cold pressed juice, photo-op scouting.  

In the end, my heart was broken because every time I am reminded just how much I love a city that is not for me, my heart is broken. But when I arrived at my brother's house in a tiny town on the Hudson River, I felt relief.

My brother lives in the place that Washington Irving stories are made of. And Jake taught me Washington Irving back when I was 19 and I've always wanted to see that distinctive part of the world that had somehow forever eluded me until now. Then. This was two weeks ago. Or three.

My brother lives in a place that has names I've only ever heard mythologized. Catskill. Rip Van Winkle. Sleepy Hollow. This is a real place. Upstate New York. The Hudson Valley. We went to a waterfall where people die by slipping and plummeting into the rocks below. We tried to feel relaxed while forcibly erasing our own memories of trauma, our imaginations, trying to ignore the bodies that slid up and down the path to the second, most precarious level of the waterfall. We watched an annoying couple feed each other hippie snack food. I stood under the freezing water and hoped I wasn't standing under the run off of dead deer trapped in the river further upstream. No water is clean.

The town of Hudson is a strange place. It is not where my brother lives, but it is where my parents stayed while we visited him. It's a town for rich New Yorkers, but it's small and quaint and filled with houses from other centuries, some of which have been renovated, others have not. There are hipster coffee shops and expensive restaurants with craft cocktails and east coast oysters [which are disgusting--west coast 4 life]. There are so many furniture stores. There is too much furniture in Hudson for the people living there. An excess of furniture screams at you as you walk down the only main street, and feels completely inappropriate in a town that is otherwise surrounded by other small, blue collar towns with no need for $16,000 neon plastic sculptures with tiny human figurines glued to them. But I guess really no one has a need for that.

My brother does not live in Hudson. He lives in a town much smaller than Hudson with only one restaurant and a gas station/convenience store where the people of the town eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The ice cream they sell is their brand, and it has names associated with the Hudson Valley. We bought some graham cracker caramel ice cream with a name like "Crumbs over the Mohawk" or something, the Mohawk being an area or a mountain or whatever in the surrounding area. Every night, my brother and I ate that ice cream. I added to mine a slop of marshmallow fluff and some cosmic brownies. Every night we watched Friday Night Lights on my iPad before parting ways and passing out. The next morning, he always made me breakfast.

I've never lived in a small town, but I always imagined that I'd like to. I think Salt Lake City is the smallest city I've ever lived in. I was raised in the mountains, and that was a relatively small neighborhood, but our neighbors' houses were still five feet away from ours and we were still a suburb, not a town. My brother wakes up on his days off from fixing up houses and kayaks across the Hudson either to an island in the middle or to the town of Hudson itself. This avoids having to pay the toll on the Rip Van Winkle bridge. It's a beautiful, peaceful means of transport. We kayaked over to meet our parents for dinner one night.

On a day my brother was working, my parents gave me the tour of his life up there. Where he'd gone to school. What towns he and his various friends have lived in. A whole world of his I never knew. We stopped at a farm stand and bought a cold chai latte in a mason jar and some plums from the area. My brother takes his coffee to work in mason jars. They litter the floor of his truck. I can't imagine they're comfortable to hold when filled with hot liquid. But they fit a lot in them.

I talk to my brother about what it's like to live in a small town. He tells me it's great, but it takes a lot of imagination. Imagination he feels he sometimes doesn't have. He seems happy. Which makes me happy. I can picture a life up there. Kayaking over to Hudson for work in the early morning. Kayaking home in the evening. Drinking locally brewed beer at the restaurant/brewery across the street. Reading in my living room. Watching the sunset from the park bench on the Hudson River a block away. Picking up ice cream on my way home. From where I am in the middle of Los Angeles right now, that sounds like a nice life. Reading and writing and small dinner parties with friends from five different towns in the area. Playing cards. Being outside a lot. Then I imagine the winter. I've never been good at winter. I imagine surviving a winter up there feels like its own particular kind of miracle. That's something I'd like to experience, too.

But I'm here in LA now, away from my family in Colorado, away from my brother in upstate New York. And this is the life I chose, and most days, I love it with my whole being. But after 46 days with my family, most of my being wishes it was still driving through Catskill on the way to meet my parents for lunch or sitting on my back porch in the valley watching the sun light up the clouds over the mountains in my backyard.

For the first time in my life, I'm not excited to be back in Los Angeles. I know that will pass. But I also know why it feels strange. I moved into this apartment almost exactly two years ago, on August 16th. And in that time, I've lost an incredibly important friend to sudden death, and I've lost my love to a break up, and I've been miserable, and I've been happy, and I've changed so much that I don't recognize the self I find when I am back here in this apartment that witnessed all that. Colorado was like my cocoon. I went there and I recuperated and I came back to an apartment that previously knew my sickness and sadness and I feel out of place. So now I'm determined to redefine this place around this new phase in my life. I don't want this to be the apartment I moved into in 2012. I want it to be the apartment I live in in 2014. I'm going to get a dog. I'm going to fight for even more change. I'm going to break myself out of this stasis, because I want to be moving through, not watching from, always.