The Solo Retreat: L.A. Edition

I love long drives and it had been a while since my last solo retreat so I decided to go someplace different this time. I decided to drive to Los Angeles, California, the heart of the TV and film industry and, coincidentally, only about a 7 or 8 hour drive from home. I only had two goals when I arrived: to visit the ocean and The Museum of Broken Relationships in Hollywood.

My reservations were for The Santa Monica Motel in Santa Monica. It wasn’t a particularly fancy place but I was on a very tight budget so it was the best I could do. Besides, I wanted something near the beach, preferably Venice Beach because it was listed on Discover Los Angeles dot com as the best beach for people-watching. But Santa Monica would have to do.

This wasn’t a vacation. I hoped to have time and solitude for prayer and introspection but I also hoped to learn something new. I just wasn’t entirely sure what I’d learn and, for me, that was part of the fun.

The desert as a landscape easily gives way to contemplation. Desert Center, for example, was almost a ghost town. I was the only tourist that day which made the landscape seem all the more alien. But I still chose to walk along that dusty main road and take pictures of abandoned buildings and decapitated palm trees. I might’ve ventured further but the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs managed to deter me. I’ve never been much of a rule-breaker.

Further down the I-10, I made it a point to stop for the famous Dinosaurs of Cabazon which I’d seen from the road many times but never up close. There was a gift shop inside the brontosaurus (the incorrect word I’d learned in my childhood but most certainly was still used when these were built). When I went in and I was the only customer. The young 20-year-old girl working there seemed bored and starved for conversation. So I chatted with her for a bit as I picked out postcards and cheap dinosaur figurines. I told her about my what I liked to photograph and she told me about the photography class she took at her high school. Then we talked about travel and college. She was sweet but seemed even more naïve than I was at her age and that’s saying quite a lot. But at least she’ll be able to tell the next generation about the time she worked inside a giant dinosaur.

Back on the road, I thought a lot about all the crosses I passed. I see them in the city as well but for some reason the ones along the desert part of the I-10 baffled me. I think it was because they seemed so inaccessible. Driving at 65 mph or more there was no way to gather more than a mere glimpse. It was enough time to know someone died there but nothing more and it irked me. Who were they? Who chose to commemorate them with a cross? Was it a family member, a friend, or maybe some stranger who’d been at the scene? If there were fresh flowers, who’d traveled all that way to lay them there and why? What are we supposed to remember about them anyway? Is it important to know where they died? Wouldn’t it be better to know how they lived? Would it help us to know their names, stories, favorite songs or who they hoped to be? And why does this bother me so?

I saw more and more luxury vehicles the closer I came to Santa Monica. Shiny Mercedes, Porches, Priuses, and Jaguars began to surround me. But it all made sense once I realized that many of them were exiting at Beverly Hills. Then I started to wonder who might be driving them. Was it someone I’d recognize from film or TV? Could it be a celebrity I admired or had a crush on but who would inevitably leave me tongue-tied were we to actually meet in person?

When I checked in at my motel, I asked the guy at the front desk how far we were from the ocean and he told me it was a 12-minute walk from there so I quickly dropped everything off in my room, grabbed my jacket, my camera, and the tripod, and hastened to the beach to capture the sunset.

I held nothing back as an amateur photographer. I let myself look foolish in every way except when talking to strangers. This would not be a night for asking strangers if I could take their pictures. But there were beautiful, athletic people all around me, running and cycling. There was even a kind of outdoor gymnasium for acrobats or gymnasts or something, complete with rings and high bars and slack-lining. I thought of my own frumpy, out-of-shape body and felt more like an outsider than ever. But at least this time I could call myself a “tourist” and my awkwardness would make some sense.

I hung around a little past sunset to capture the carnival lights on the boardwalk and then wandered home. As I walked, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of homelessness right in front of me. But it was dark and I was too fatigued to wrap my mind around the crises of homelessness yet.

Friday was my only full day in L.A. and I’d printed out directions from the motel to The Museum of Broken Relationships before I left Arizona. The museum itself, however, wasn’t open until 11 so I headed down the road to Venice Beach and began photographing and filming the surfers. I could tell these surfers were passionate about their sport. It was inspiring to watch as they waited patiently for just the right wave. Sometimes the  waiting  seemed to take forever until at last one or two surfers would stand and ride a wave for 2, maybe 3, minutes tops. The wetsuits they wore protected them from the chill of the Pacific but once they returned to the beach, I’d see them shiver. As an outsider, my temptation is to ask, was it worth it? But these surfing addicts tell me in no uncertain terms that it’s totally worth it. The waves are quite possibly their greatest love.

I only had a couple hours to spend on Venice Beach, so I walked quickly, but I also made frequent photo-stops. On the peer I saw the occasional body resting beneath worn blankets. The coast can be a chilling place to sleep, especially at night. I wonder how long I’d last in such conditions.

The fishermen were gathered at the end of the pier as were the sea birds.

Venice Beach was obviously a dog-friendly area and many of the dogs were full-bred pedigrees. Their owners doted over them as though they were their children. Both owners and dogs were well-groomed and well-mannered. Dog people sometimes seemed to outnumber ordinary people so no one felt compelled to stop and say, “Oh! Your dog’s so cute! Can I pet him?” But try walking a cat and it’s a completely different story. Suddenly all the attention is focused on you and your furry feline and everyone has questions. Everyone wants to take a picture.

Next stop: Hollywood.

I can’t remember where I’d first heard of The Museum of Broken Relationships. I want to say that Post Secret posted something about it on their Facebook page back when the museum opened about a year ago. After that, I immediately started following them on Instagram and kind of fell in love. But let’s face it, they had me at the word broken.

It’s expected for us to celebrate success in life. Most awards are given to people who have achieved something. We celebrate what we build, not what falls apart. We celebrate what we repair, not what we break. But I think what we often forget is that much of what we create is built on and from the rubble of failure and brokenness.

The museum was a little underwhelming to me, but I blame myself for that. I’d built it up so much in my mind that it was almost destined to disappoint. What I loved most about the museum, though, were the stories. There’d be an object (or a series of objects) and then a story to accompany them. The objects were meaningless by themselves. But with a story to go with them, they became exceedingly more valuable. I kind of wished I hadn’t shredded my ex’s old letters and pawned the engagement ring now because they would’ve been worthy donations (so long as he remained anonymous). But there was no museum like this back then.

Also, although most of the “broken relationships” on display were between two people who were in love, there were a few that fit in the “family” or even the “friendship” realm as well as breakups with religions, faiths, or ideologies. The heart and soul of the museum, however, are the personal stories from ordinary people and, as a memoirist, I crave this kind of stuff.

The museum is in the heart of Hollywood on Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood “stars” line the sidewalk just outside the door and it’s impossible not to see the irony. A “star” represents someone who’s made it in the entertainment world and that person will never be forgotten. But if we never achieve fame, it’s unlikely anyone will remember us beyond a couple of generations after we’re gone. There will be records of our existence but no stories. I’m not entirely sure why, but it saddens me to think of this.

Playing the role of “tourist” that day, there never seemed to be a convenient time to sit down. Once a tall, good-looking man in a white shirt tempted me with a chance to sit for two hours and watch a free movie. It took me a minute to realize that he was a Scientologist and we were, in fact, right outside the big Scientology building. So I turned him down. Of course, he insisted he wasn’t trying to convert me but I just smiled. I wasn’t witty enough to know what to say nor was I in the mood to discuss our differences in beliefs. In the end, I just told him I had to keep walking and there are plenty of other tourists he can try and ensnare. He doesn’t need me.

After our encounter, two things struck me about the Scientologists’ method of proselytizing. First of all, I only saw attractive people working as “missionaries” – I mean like movie star attractive. In other words, they were way out of my league in terms of appearance. Second, they seemed to be gifted at speaking more than one language so I assume they’re fairly intelligent. So why, when he described the movie he was handing out tickets for, did it sound like a story straight out of a science fiction novel? Why did he seem to sincerely believe it to be the true story of the origins of mankind?

Scientologists weren’t the only ones seeking converts on Hollywood Blvd. I saw a street preacher wandering around with a sign telling us all to repent. The strange thing was, he wasn’t really preaching. He was just carrying a big speaker around with a recording of another preacher. This was a new, I thought. I’ve yet to see Phoenix street preachers stoop to such levels. Once more, he left many of us with the impression that he was probably foreign and maybe he didn’t fully understand the message he was sharing in the first place.

I reminded myself that Hollywood was built as a place to create fantasy. Movies are supposed to be escapes from reality. So pretending to be a street corner preacher didn’t seem very far-fetched. Playing “let’s pretend” is what Hollywood does best.

It was hard to think of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with the disturbing reminder that homelessness was right before our eyes and couldn’t easily be ignored. Like many others, I walked past several several folks in need because there were just too many to count. The homeless problem in L.A. is to big a problem to ignore. It overwhelming and just feels like a lost cause much of the time.

Sunset Blvd. wasn’t any better and it’s even more frustrating when you realize that Beverly Hills and Sherman Oaks are just around the corner. Many our favorite rich and famous Hollywood stars live around there in their secluded mansions, indulging in wasteful luxuries when they could better use their wealth to help the suffering people right outside their doors.

Then again, it’s not a situation that you can just throw money at and hope it will go away. Each homeless person is an individual with individual needs and individual problems. There’s no blanket solution.

Here in Phoenix, it’s not as bad as L.A. but it’s getting worse. I’m currently trying to chat with people about realistic solutions. I don’t know the hearts of our favorite stars but I can’t believe all their hearts are hardened. I know of at least one person from Beverly Hills who felt compelled to help the homeless and did. That’s Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys. Sadly, I don’t know of other individuals from the entertainment industry who are actively doing something for the homeless in L.A. But if you know of anyone, please tell us. We could use a little more hope.

I went to the Hard Rock Café for dinner that night. I asked for a table for one. I don’t know if the server ever saw the irony but I was wearing my “People Need Other People shirt from To Write Love On Her Arms.

He sat me at a table near the bar overlooking all the other tourists who actually had people to eat with. Directly facing me was another “table for one.” I glanced up at him now and then, not wanting to stare. I wonder what would’ve happened if one of us had invited the other to eat with them? I thought I detected a foreign accent when he ordered his food. What if he spoke French? That would be so awesome because I love to speak French! Then again, he probably wouldn’t want to be seen with someone like me. Nothing like being around movie and TV stars to remind you that you’re not attractive.

On my way out, I asked the hosts about the stereotype I’d heard that almost all servers in that area were trying to become actors. There were three of them up front just then and the girl on the left shook her head “no.” The guy in the middle said it wasn’t true in a serious tone. But then the tall, good-looking guy to the right smiled and said, “I’m trying to become an actor! And I know a lot of my buddies who are working on the floor are too.”

I laughed. See? There’s a reason the stereotype exists.

Getting back to the motel on a Friday night in Hollywood without any kind of GPS proved to be a fun challenge. Parking seemed to be pay-only and street parking was filled to capacity. How do I pull over and check my old-fashioned paper map? Eventually I found a McDonalds parking lot and made it to bed at last.

The next day, on my way back to Arizona, I opted for a change of scenery and took highway 62 through Parker, Arizona instead of I-10. After driving through Twenty Nine Palms, the road became pretty quiet. I wasn’t surprised, though, since, when I’d left the last town, the sign said something like: “No Services for Next 100 Miles.”

Along the way, I pulled over to the side of the road because I saw what seemed to be a shoe shrine. Across the street and along the railroad tracks I’d already become baffled by the names and dates written with stones. How did the people get there anyway? There weren’t many pullouts until I arrived at this one where the foundations of old buildings were on the ground, covered in broken glass.

I was alone in the desert and it made me feel a little uneasy. But I had to take the pictures of the shoes. It was all very unusual. I mean, why were these people driven to do this? Some of the shoes had writing. Was this how they wanted to be remembered? Was there a superstition attached to leaving shoes here? Did they think it would bring them good luck? Who’s idea was this?

Not a single car drove pass the entire time I was there. Were all those shoes left in the cloak of darkness? Maybe it wasn’t real. My mind does play tricks on me sometimes. Oh, but I have photographic evidence! And, of course, the internet: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice,_California

I stopped taking pictures after the shoes in the desert. The stories those shoes could tell if they could talk!

At the end of the journey, everything I’d seen seemed to be pointing at a greater truth. But I have to be careful when and how I derive meaning from objects and experiences. My mind has worked against me before. And yet the mystery and the mysticism of faith and life never ceases to enthrall me. From roadside crosses to broken relationships to Hollywood stars to homeless people to discarded shoes: there is meaning in it all.

P.S. I took some videos too and put them together in a kind of slideshow with a few of the stills and two songs that have come to be very important to me over the years. Hope you like it.

Missing the Mark

Me in Tombstone, AZ, age 15 (1995)

Who can say what it was that really derailed me earlier in life leaving me stuck on the margins of Western society, watching as everyone else lives more respectable and “normal” lives than mine?

Maybe it was the word I misspelled in the all-school spelling bee in (I think) fourth grade. I proved to be the best speller in my class only to be publicly embarrassed when I misspelled the first word I was given (“cosmetic”). Or maybe it was the private joy I felt when my sixth grade teacher told me I was the only one in the class who tested out of seventh grade reading class only to have the humiliation of testing back into reading in eighth grade.

Again in seventh grade, I’d earned a spot in the talent show after auditioning with a piano arrangement of the title song from “The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and yet I couldn’t perfect it let alone memorize it in time for the performance. It was so terrible, in fact, that my piano teacher urged me not to perform it because she believed doing so would be both an embarrassment to her as well as to me. But the teacher who’d organized the talent show told me it was too late to drop my act and so, the night of the performance, my best still wasn’t good enough and, when it was over, I ran backstage to my friends waiting in the wings and cried.

That same year, the junior high principle called me into his office to tell me I’d tested high enough to be in accelerated English and I turned down the opportunity to move up because it was only offered during one period which conflicted with choir. I actually thought music mattered more back then. In retrospect, the adults shouldn’t have left that kind of decision to a 13-year-old.

I suppose the downward spiral could have started in tenth grade when I auditioned for the school play “The Crucible” and completely bombed. I was so terrible the drama teacher wouldn’t even cast me as an extra. Later on, when the school performed the musical “Grease,” I wasn’t even cast in the chorus. I’m quite sure that’s when my Broadway dreams officially shattered.

Singing was something I still thought I was good at. After all, I’d had voice lessons, I’d been a favorite for choir solos throughout junior high and high school, I sang in the praise band at the church youth service and had been a regular church soloist since sixth grade. But then, when I joined the Christian singing group known as the Continentals for a 10-week tour one summer, I auditioned for a solo the week of rehearsal camp, one I’d practiced repeatedly back home, but there I completely choked. I couldn’t even find the right key, a problem I didn’t remember having before. So I remained in the background all summer (though I admit, the role did kind of grow on me).

Regular blows to my confidence took place throughout my adolescence and continued well into my young adulthood. My one great surge in confidence came shortly before my most significant mental breakdown, the one that lead to an involuntary hospitalization in Thuir, France. For me, that was actually the turning point for everything in my life. After that I was never really sure I was good at anything. That thought pattern has been so prevalent in me that not even psychotropic medication and therapy have been able to completely resolve it.

Go back to school, some of you tell me. Well, I’ve tried that but it never goes well. I mean, I barely earned my bachelor’s degree. My university transcripts are nothing to boast of.

True, I’m writing and, although I don’t feel I’m a great writer, I enjoy writing and sharing my thoughts.

I saw an add once from RELEVANT magazine calling for new writers. RELEVANT happens to be one of my favorite publications and when I saw the ad, at first I thought about what a joy it would be to write for them. Then I wrote a response but never sent it. It was basically an anti-résumé, meant to be delivered attached to a giant, red flag.

Today is my 37th birthday and one I happily share with Victor Hugo and Stan Roberson. However I’m acutely aware that at my age I’m nowhere near where Post-Modern Western society expects me to be.

Don’t get me wrong. It doesn’t bother me to be childless and single. If that were the only problem, I think I’d be fine. But the milestones I truly regret not having achieved by now are independence and vocation. I just want to be able to say to a stranger “this is what I do and I’m good at it and I enjoy doing it.” At last I’d have respect and then perhaps the younger folk will come to me for advice and encouragement (and I’d freely give it them).

There is a downside to trying to change at my age, however. The psychological damage is now so deeply rooted and widespread that the process of recovery is going to be much longer and decisively more painful than it might’ve been when I was younger. But I have to wonder, “now me” is the “me” I know best, but is there another version of “me” trapped beneath the rubble who still needs to be set free?

Hope for the Hopeless Romantic

I’m almost done writing the latest draft of my memoir, a story that spans nearly three years of my youth – from age 22, when I was most innocent, idealistic, adventurous, and passionate, until age 25, when I felt most powerless and hopeless.

My story isn’t really a love story, though, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are traces of romance here and there. I rediscover them as I flip through my personal writings and I’ve polished and edited some of those bits for you, too, so that you can join me on my journey to reconstruct a life

Historically, the longest relationship I ever had was with a guy I met while I was still a senior in high school. We were both working at a bookstore together and I remember how hard it was to believe that someone I liked actually liked me back. I was in such a state of disbelief that I tried to destroy the relationship from the start. We’d gone on an evening walk to a nearby park where I told him all the reasons I didn’t think he should date me. I confessed every sin and every fatal flaw I could think of and, to my amazement, he didn’t run away. He didn’t even flinch. In fact, he continued to write me poetry and create thrifty and imaginative adventures for us to go on for at least another year. But by our second year together, our relationship went downhill. I won’t go into details. Let’s just say we both share some of the blame.

Our breakup happened shortly after I turned 21. We were even engaged for a little bit (although it never really felt like it). A year later we met up for dinner. True, part of my motivation was to see if I had any residual feelings for him after all that time. But I was relieved to know those feelings had completely dissolved. I could hop on my plane to France knowing there was no reason to return. I was free.

The time period covered in my memoir was one of the most fruitful periods in my life in terms of personal writing. I didn’t write daily, but I definitely carried my diary with me more often than ever before. Beginning with my study abroad in France, I also developed a ritual of writing semi-regular generic emails, or, what you might call predecessors to blogs such as this one. Of course my writing was nothing to boast of, but at the time I thought it was quite prolific. It would actually frustrate me sometimes to try and write a story or a poem and suddenly face a writer’s block that seemed nonexistent moments before when I was scribbling in my diary. Now I look at those old diaries and analyze my younger-self. Today, I’m trying to figure out how I became so confused about love.

My first three months in France aren’t covered in the memoir. In earlier versions I wrote about them. I wrote, for instance, of the only five men I ever locked lips with in France and, believe me, it went no further than that because I took the whole “saving myself until marriage” thing pretty seriously and it threw some of the Frenchmen I met for a loop. Most Europeans lose their virginity around 17 or 18. I was 22 and still hadn’t lost mine (and wouldn’t for a very long time). It was like I was from another planet. But at least no one tried to force himself on me. At least they were cool with moving into a conversation or leaving me alone entirely. For me, it was disappointing how uninterested many guys seemed once sex was off the table. I couldn’t understand because deep conversation was almost the epitome of intimacy in my world. In any case, once I settled in Montpellier, my kissing days were over (save “la bise” a.k.a. “French cheek kissing”). I had one French guy-friend and I told him in no uncertain terms that the next man I date will be the man I marry. To my delight, those words didn’t send him running. We stayed friends for the duration of my time there. Sometimes he’d talk to me about girls he dated or wanted to date and I was happy to listen and encourage him in his romantic endeavors. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye. But then again, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone in Montpellier, but you’ll understand why when you read my book.

Here are some thoughts from my personal writings about love followed by reflective commentary from more than a decade later. But, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Then, when my memoir is finished and published, you can read it and have a better understanding of the story as a whole.

Here’s a playlist of songs that would have influenced my thoughts about romance back then. All of them are from musicals because musicals are stories and each song is part of a greater story. I love that!

I didn’t know yet to identify it as such, but that weekend I was suffering from major depression triggered by grief. To be alone at such a time in a city practically made for lovers made the weight in my chest even heavier. In response, I turned to God, personal letters, and my journal. I walked alone at night heedless of the catcalls that follow young women far more often in France than in the States. “Discutez avec moi” was never an invitation simply to talk. There were expectations behind those words I wasn’t about to find out.

The French guy in this case had misinterpreted a smile I’d given him one evening. Americans smile at strangers far more often than French people do and I knew that even then. But like any idealist, I believed this guy could change. I thought we’d meet up and he’d be okay with simple conversation. But then he saw the Celtic cross around my neck and realized there was a reason I wasn’t “putting out.”

Since I arrived in Montpellier six months earlier, there’d been no kissing, no hand-holding, and very little hugging. Physical affection had been reduced to the French cheek-kissing ritual known as “la bise” which isn’t really kissing, if you think about it. There is a very light touch of one cheek to another but the kissing itself is mostly in the air. The sound of lip-smacking solidifies it. No actual kissing; just really loud pretend kissing. The above writing came at the climax of my mental breakdown. It was meant to be my last entry ever before I diminished into the world, weaving in and out of different lands and cultures without a name or passport and demonstrating a Mother Teresa style love in every village and every town. Mother Teresa never married. If she could live an impactful and meaningful life without a husband then so could I, right?

I elaborated a bit more on this in my “epistles” from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France.

Still delusional, I fought against the very idea of romantic love. In my head the memories of lonely Frenchmen who thought love and sex were one and the same were fresh on my mind. One of my very last memories of such a misunderstanding was a day or two before I left Montpellier. I agreed to help a very tall young man with his English. He told me he was a Christian so I used a Bible verse from either the gospel of John or 1 John (it was a while ago) for our tutoring session. I had him read it and then asked him what he understood. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to his place for coffee. I was smart enough to know that “coffee” was usually a euphemism for sex and so I politely said no to which he replied, “but Jesus said to love your neighbor! Come to my place and make love to me!”

I shook my head and said back to him, “Jesus didn’t mean that kind of love.”

One of my guy friends had professed his love for me over the summer. Before he went away in the fall, he burst into my dorm room to tell me how he felt and request a farewell kiss. But I turned him down. I enjoyed hanging out with him but I didn’t feel the same for him as he did for me. And yes, there is something empowering about rejecting someone’s advances toward you verses being rejected. Besides, by this juncture in the story, I’d been given a diagnosis and I’d researched it extensively. I knew there was no guarantee my medication would always work and I’d never have another breakdown. I wondered if it was fair for me to date anyone.

Rich Mullins never married. He was engaged once but that’s the closest he ever came and towards the end of his life some were dubbing him the “happy celibate.” He didn’t eschew that title either. He said in an interview once that maybe God did want him to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was by breaking his heart.

I love Rich Mullins and it saddens me at times that I didn’t come to love him until after he died. But I was also still a teenager when he died and he was in his early forties. The point is that, even after death he had such a strong influence on my life that I began to think more and more of celibacy as a gift. Jesus didn’t even marry so why did it seem like everyone in Christianity made such a big deal about marriage?

I recommend you read Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at wedding ceremonies, or so I’m told. I actually haven’t been to many weddings. My “touched with fire” reference is both to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title and the only textbook manic episode I’ve ever experienced. Someone told me once that mania has a way of bringing your greatest desires to the surface. For some that means becoming overtly promiscuous. For others it means going on a wild spending spree or impulsively taking a plane to London. For me it meant living out and sharing a New Testament kind of love. Of the four Greek loves, I’m referring to agape. Look it up.

The rules of love change when you discover you have feelings for someone you don’t want to have feelings for.

Just when I feel like I can accept not falling in love (or at least not being loved in return), someone I’m interested in shows interest in me. It is unbelievably annoying. So does this mean celibacy isn’t my calling in life? Does this mean that the next guy I date won’t actually be the guy I marry? And how much of my story do I tell him? I owe it to him to give him some sort of warning before he chooses to be in a relationship with me. He needs to have a chance to get out while he can!

This becomes the story of my life, at least the romantic end of it. There will be one more short-lived romance before I turn 30. It wasn’t ideal but anyone who knows me knows I can easily fall into self-pity and self-hatred. I see my flaws much quicker than I see my gifts. But when someone loves me and I don’t fully understand why, I begin to think maybe I’m not such a royal fuck-up. If someone I love can love me, then there must be something about me worth loving.

 

Reflecting on “Silence”

I was thinking this morning about the movie I saw the other day, Martin Scorsese’s Silence and how afterwards, not long after I walked in the door of my house, Mom was quick to say how that movie flopped on opening weekend and all the reviews she’d read of it were negative. She sent me one of those reviews and I read it, but I’d already seen the movie. It did little to change my opinion.

Now, I’m no good at handing out criticism. In fact, that’s the principle reason I quit doing writers groups. I can take it, no problem. In fact, I welcome it. But I’m terrible at giving any back. And it’s not that I don’t want to. Sometimes I’ll read something and I’ll know there’s something wrong I just can’t pinpoint what. With movies, I’m most interested in the story.

Story motivated me to see Silence. But I could tell from the trailer that it wasn’t going to be a popular story. For starters, in a world of neo-colonialism and postmodernism, stories that portray European Christians as essentially “good” and Japanese Buddhists as essentially “bad” are not going to be well-received, no matter how good the acting, directing, and cinematography. I have to admit this even made me uncomfortable. Also casting British and American men as Portuguese Jesuit Priests tends to trouble my generation, no matter how great and renowned they are as actors. This narrative could’ve easily been sold to audiences thirty years ago, but now it makes us uneasy. Perhaps we’re now more aware of the brutality of some (not all) Christian missionaries who sailed from Europe over four-hundred years ago to spread their faith. Their stories have been heard loud and clear and the pain still lingers even now.

It is a little unfair to think of the missionaries entirely as villains, however. They didn’t think of themselves as such. They believed they were helping people in other parts of the world who’d never heard the gospel. Many of them could testify of their own powerful and personal encounters with God and it seemed only natural that they’d want to share that with anyone and everyone. I’ve known that feeling as well, but in a different time and a different place where my faith wasn’t so widely viewed as the “one true faith.”

I think then that it’s probably best we strip down the story a bit and look at what’s important here. As the title implies, this story is first and foremost about God’s silence. How do you cope with a situation where people who look up to you and share your faith are being martyred left and right and you’re utterly powerless to help them? Day in and day out you appeal to God in your prayers but you don’t know if God can hear you or if he even cares because the pain doesn’t end and you can’t hear God’s voice.

Then again, God’s voice doesn’t usually come to us in an audible way. It’s more likely to penetrate our thoughts and our dreams. Sometimes it’s heard in the voices of others, not just those who share our faith but through the words of those we least expect. Sometimes he even speaks to us through our pain and suffering.

The intense torture conveyed in the film, however, is something none of us would want to face but is still worth exploring. Dying for your faith is not as hard as being forced to watch those who look to you for spiritual guidance die. How long would it take you to break if you were told the violence would only end if you set an example and publicly renounce your own faith?

I don’t want to spoil the ending for those who’ve not seen the film but I have to say, after watching this I was challenged to imagine what might have gone through the minds of these priests. I was also challenged with how I judge others. I don’t know the journey of the stranger next to me. I don’t know his or her heart. Maybe he’s secretly praying in the silence of his mind. In the end, only God knows.

Pretending to be a Street Photographer in 2016

I’m sad to say that too many of what might have been great photos came out blurred, like these. If I were to do them over again, I’d ask my subjects to wait a moment while I made some adjustments. But I was nervous and didn’t want to make them wait.

Despite my shortcomings as a photographer, I still want my pictures to have meaning and purpose. I want them to be beautiful. I don’t know why, I just do. But I don’t know if they’re beautiful to anyone but me. I just love how the camera take me out of myself.

For me, the best pictures are of people. When I take pictures of people, it’s like I’m an anthropologist studying my own culture and its subcultures. I want to understand this world around me where I’ve always felt foreign, even in my own home.

I love it most when people aren’t posing or pretending – just being.

Then I return home and study the RAW files. I look at their expressions, their body language, and imagine what it is to be them.

I imagine their stories. They have amazing stories!

ASU Tempe Campus where I was taking a class back in January and happened upon a preacher holding up a hateful sign while a couple of students who seemed to be protesting him held up their own signs promoting peace and unity. It was a sad spectacle but at the same time I wondered what would drive a man to go out there and hold up a sign such as this while still professing to believe in a God of love.
This was the first guy in line for the VNSA Annual Book Sale in February. It says the line starts at midnight, but he had a tent so I’m quite sure he was there earlier than that.
Some young teachers keep entertained while they wait for the doors to the open at the VNSA Annual Book Sale. They must have arrived between 4 AM and 5 AM. I was there just before 3. Doors opened at 8. To me this is the only event worth waiting in line for.

 

Walking the paved trail at Multnomah Falls in Oregon on the last weekend of February.
A book-lover browses books at the Powell’s on Hawthorne bookstore in Portland, OR.
I hope this couple found love and joy in Portland, OR.
Photographers resting at the old bunkers around Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, OR.
Young people flock to Roosevelt Row for another First Friday Art Walk.
Directions from the man in stilts at the Arizona Renaissance Fair.
Street musicians perform at the First Friday Art Walk in Phoenix.
Springtime at the World Bazaar at 19th St. and Camelback in Phoenix.
Fan art at Phoenix Comicon.
Cosplayers and other Phoenix Comicon attendees taking a break. Most of my pictures from Comicon didn’t turn out super great this year, so I tried to make some of them look like comics themselves.
This was a craft fair for Arizona crafters and merchants organized at the Mesa Convention Center by Arizona Made (I think that was the name of it)
Some of my family members are enjoying a coffee break in the corner there at Joseph-Beth Booksellers back in June of 2016.
A protest against police brutality in Flagstaff, AZ on a Sunday in August of 2016.
A protest marches through Heritage Square in Flagstaff when an audience has gathered to watch a string quartet on a Sunday afternoon in August, 2016.
An abandoned guitar in an alley way in Flagstaff, taken in August 2016
Tourists gaze down at Horeshoe bend in Arizona, August 2016.
Tourists – some of the most fascinating people for people-watching at Horseshoe Bend, AZ in August 2016.
Tourists heading back to their cars at Horseshoe Bend.
Some of the “free hugs” guys on Roosevelt Row at the November First Friday Artwalk in Phoenix.
A First Friday concert on Roosevelt Row, Phoenix, AZ.
On election night in Tucson, this guy saw me with my camera and asked (jokingly) if I wanted to take his picture. So I did, or at least tried to (I think he thought I wouldn’t take him up on it),
Young voters gather at a local bar near the university in Tucson while votes are counted, anxiously awaiting to find out who the next president would be.
Protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (among other things) descend upon Phoenix First Friday in December.
More protestors in Phoenix against the Dakota Access Pipeline in December 2016. Their fight would be one a day or two later.
Comedians warm up at the fire before the free comedy show behind Lawn Gnome Publishing in Phoenix.

 

Short Observations from a Wildlife Preserve

This isn’t meant to be a masterpiece.
It’s just a wee bit of free-writing I did on Thanksgiving while enjoying some solo time. I wanted to remember what I saw as I sat there and, although most people had come for the wildlife, I liked watching the people and recording what I saw as though I were an alien from another planet. The descriptions are vague but I’ve never been big on descriptions to begin with. Feel free to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.
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I found a (relatively) quiet place to write. I’m facing a pond in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary and once in a while another human being will walk by. But mostly it’s just the birds and me.img_1456

Of the few glimpses of humanity I’ve caught while sitting here (so far), there was a family with small children. Then I saw a woman leaving alone with a camera at her side that had a long, telephoto lens. Next I saw a man entering the preserve alone, but no visible camera.

Who’s coming now?

There’s a young couple, newlyweds perhaps. And then an aunt and her nephew (I assume). At first I thought they were mother and son but then I heard the young man say “my mother” as though he were talking to this other woman about his mother. So I’m guessing she’s his aunt.

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An elderly couple just passed by. It’s funny, I’m quite sure these benches were designed for bird watching yet here I am recording far more people sightings than wildlife sightings.

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Twins! I just saw a young couple with twin daughters! They stopped to take a family selfie and then walked on. As I watch them walk away, I think maybe the girls aren’t twins after all. One is shorter than the other. It’s possible I was thrown off by their matching dresses.img_1393

A rabbit hopped right past me! Then it paused for a long moment so I reached for my iPod to take a snapshot of it but as soon as I made a move, it startled and vanished into the bushes. I can still kind of see its cotton tail, but I’m not equipped to photograph it from a distance and maybe it’s better this way. It’s hard to experience the tranquility here when you’re constantly trying to snap a picture. Although I’ll probably come back one of these days with my own high quality camera and telephoto lens. It is a beautiful place.

It’s not quite a wilderness here. I can still hear the sound of traffic neaby.img_1481

Wait. Do I detect French-speakers approaching? Perhaps not. Whatever it was they were speaking from a distance they’d already switched to English as they came closer to me. It still sounded like English with a French accent, though, so I took a risk.

“Français?” I shouted.

I guess that wasn’t the best way to ask if they spoke French. The guy looked at me weird so I switched to English. “Oh, I just wanted to know if you speak French.”

“Oh, no,” he said as he and his family moved on.

What’s wrong with me? Is the radar that I used to have finely tuned to zoom in on the sound of a native French speaker now broken? I could’ve sworn I heard them speak French to their kids when they were further away, or at least the woman spoke it. Now I’m not sure. The embarrassment of it all has confused me.

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Oh, but I would be so happy to speak French on a day like today! Francophones everywhere have to be able to sense that about me.

Pitié pour moi, les Français en Amérique! Je n’habites pas dans le pays de mon cœur!

Ok, now I hear an Asian language of some sort spoken by two young guys who just walked by. I don’t presume to know much about the multitudes of languages and cultures in Asia. A lifetime is not enough to learn all there is of that gigantic continent.

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Look! A father taking his teenage daughter on a photography adventure. I imagine it’s for a high school photography class. She’s holding a partially opened tripod and her dad’s asking her if she wants to shoot toward the setting sun or away from it. The rest of the family has come along as well, but they’re not interfering with the young photographer’s work.

I’ve seen no less than five people toting DSLR cameras today with high quality, long-range lenses. Traditional photography is certainly not dead. Top notch cameras seem to be a popular accessory here on the wildlife preserve.

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A man in an electric wheelchair just rolled by. At first I thought he was alone but then I looked up again and saw that he did have a companion with him. Both were yielding their cameras with fancy, long-range lenses.

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Now they’re all gone and it’s my turn to walk again. The only camera I have with me today is the one on my iPod. But I can’t be a photographer everyday. It’s easy to see why photographers love this place, though. It’s teaming with wildlife and all the creatures are easily accessible. You don’t have to search for them. All you need do is sit quietly for a while and they will come to you. The same is true when people watching, I suppose.

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Time Again

En façade Yann Caradec - Creative Commons license https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/
En façade
Yann Caradec – Creative Commons license
https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/

I wrote about time before but the subject continues to fascinate me, especially since I got my hands on James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History. You see, I’m working on my memoir and I’ve come to the realization that my memory kind of sucks (something I’ve written about as well). But, for this particular tale, I’ve got lots of original source material to help me remember. It’s almost like telling someone else’s story much of the time, except I do notice myself smiling at certain aspects of the story or feeling somewhat melancholy because, although I’ve changed quite a bit, I’ll never forget that season of my life – not completely anyway. One of the most important sources was the diary I kept between August 2002 and February 2003; my one true friend, if you will. So I searched within in it for references to time because time is an important theme in my story and rewrote all of them so they’d be more palatable to an audience who has yet to learn the whole story. Here they are. Keep in mind, I was 22, almost 23, when this story took place and these references are in chronological order.

Time is something I can give.

Time can be taken.

Time can be taken from me.

My generation will have its time to shine.

God’s timing is perfect.

You can learn about someone by spending time with them.

Sometimes it’s better to ignore time.

Time is never truly free.

What we do with our time is not always within our control.

Alone time is to be cherished.

Time is precious and can be wasted if we’re not careful.

Time flies.

Our imagination can take us back in time, centuries before we even existed.

Sometimes it feels like the past is crying out to me.

Change takes time.

Time can be lost and, occasionally, found.

Sometimes time feels longer than it actually is.

It’s nice once in a while to slow down and take your time.

I wish I had more time.

I need time to reflect.

I don’t have much time.

It’s time to make new memories!

Where has time gone?

Why does time feel non-existent?

I don’t have enough time to write.

I don’t have enough time.

Sometimes that’s all you have time for.

Scars remain from times when I felt helpless.

Time will end.

Reflecting on Finding God in the Waves

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I might never have heard of Science Mike (Mike McHargue) had I not already been a faithful listener of the RELEVANT Podcast where he’s invited over now and then to help settle debates or make us all smarter in general. That was where I first learned about his book, too: Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science.

Right away I knew I needed to read this book.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and faith. After all, my dad’s a man of faith and a man of science. He even has some impressive credentials with his undergraduate degree from MIT where he studied aeronautics and engineering before switching to the left coast and studying engineering and computer science at Stanford. His Ph.D. in computer science comes from a less prestigious university, but the point is, his brain is hardwired for science. I can’t remember a time when our kitchen table didn’t have publications such as Science, Astronomy, ACM, MIT Technology Review, etc. spread across it. On top of that, he’s always admired and respected Carl Sagan and eagerly purchased the box set of Cosmos almost as soon as it came out on DVD (along with such nerd, sci-fi classics as Star Trek the Original Series, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact).

My dad is also a man of faith and when I was growing up, he made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Granted he raised us in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) which was one of the more “liberal” denominations where women could be ordained as ministers and doubts and questions were not discouraged. He spent many years as an elder or a deacon and frequently taught classes and/or led small groups.

Dad never saw the Bible and science as being at odds with one another because, as he put it, “If you want to learn about science, you read a science textbook. If you want to learn about God, you read the Bible.” He was an evolutionist as well. It wasn’t too much of a strain for him to believe the creation story wasn’t meant to be a literal account of how the world was made. And even now, if there is something he doesn’t know or understand, he isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and seek council from someone with more knowledge in the matter.

So when I first began learning about the New Atheist movement and meeting people who took real issue with anyone who claimed to be Christian but also claimed to believe in science, I was taken aback. What was so wrong with calling that which was beyond the realm of science God?

Unlike Mike, science didn’t kill my faith. Nonetheless, I had no trouble identifying with his loss of faith. Of course, my story is quite different and I’ve told it countless times over the years. I don’t think it needs to be told here (not yet at least).

When I publicly renounced my faith in 2006, I wrote an essay explaining why. I didn’t have a blog back then nor had I signed up for any sort of social media service. Instead I sent this to friends and family on my email list. It went something like this:

First and foremost I must send my apologies to the friends and family who strove for so long to guide me and mold me in the faith of their fathers. Although I know you did it with the best intentions, the time has arrived for me to move on, evolve, progress, and change. After careful consideration following years of indoctrination, I have at last come to the conclusion that I can no longer adhere to the old ways. That is to say, I can no longer call myself a Christian. Nor can I embrace any religion the world has to offer me. In the following discourse, I lay out the research and experiences that have led me to this conclusion.

I began my journey very pious in my faith. So much so, that I was certain only my beliefs were true and anything beyond them were of the devil. I observed the world from my comfortable certainty of a blissful afterlife and cried that so many would not be with me. My emotions, backed by a self-proclaimed loving church, drove me to tell others about what I had found, why I was so joyful, so blessed, and how they could be too. It saddened me to think that other religions had deceived their followers. It never occurred to me that I too had been deceived.

The problem was, I was lying even to myself. Truth be told, I had never experienced real joy as my parent church told me I would. Perhaps, I thought, that was coming in the afterlife. But even I couldn’t explain a loving God condemning his own creation to hell simply for not believing. I wondered, too, if that was where I should go.

Overtime I’ve been letting go of this black and white view of life and death. By and large, the people who have been the most caring in my world have been non-Christians. I remained pious as I transitioned from high school to university. That first year away from home I studied at a Christian school, but, as I moved on to a more liberal and secular university system, I came to understand that there was much more apprehension toward Christianity among those with a higher education than those without, sometimes stretching as far as anger.

I remember words of caution from my Christian friends as I told them I was transferring to a non-Christian school. They said my faith would be challenged as never before, so I must be ready to defend it. Don’t trust any source other than the Bible. Avoid taking courses on philosophy or religion at the university. Be well grounded in apologetics. Do not read material that is anti-Christian lest you give the devil a foothold.

That failed to strike me as odd until I began to branch out and encounter people with different faiths, cultures, and worldviews. All of a sudden it struck me that, if my faith were the one, true faith, then it should be able to withstand the onslaught of contradicting ideas. Oddly enough, I had pitied other religious groups for not reading literature that contradicted what they believed solely on the basis that they had been told anything written to bring down their church was bad. Now days I wonder how I ever did that without seeing how greatly I was contradicting myself.

Though my current train of thought can be largely attributed to discussions I’ve had with other people over the course of the past five years, there have been a few books recently that have also played a pivotal roll in shaping my worldview…

Contradictions between Christian churches also led me to dig deeper to unravel the secrets of the book and the religion that has shaped western civilization for nearly two millennia. It always boggled me how a religion that was supposedly peaceful still used words like “spiritual warfare” and “God’s army”. It also boggled me how a religion that was seemingly very attractive to women in the first century C.E. became one of the most oppressive religions the world has known.

I’m not angry for all those years of blind belief. However, the freedom I have now is far greater than the one promised to me by the church I was raised in. Therefore, I encourage everyone, no matter what your creed, to stop and question everything. Next time you partake of a sacrament or rise to sing a hymn, stop and ask yourself why you are doing so. Where did the words come from that you utter so mechanically during a service? If you were not raised in the your faith, would you still believe it?

As I look at world politics and the war on terror, I realize how quickly the world is decreasing in size. We can now contact someone on the other side of the world with the click of a mouse. The flow of information and ideas that we have access to now is unprecedented. I believe that is why fundamentalists are so frantic about guarding their way of life. However, change is on the horizon and no one can stop it.

… I want to thank all of you, because my way of thinking has been so deeply influenced by conversations with others, I can honestly say that there is not one among you who has not taught me something that has aided me in my journey. However, my journey is not over and hopefully neither is yours….

I obviously edited the above statement. I could’ve edited more but it felt so disrespectful to my younger-self to do so. She was really passionate when she wrote this. Of course, that was also a time when my tendency toward self-harm and suicide attempts was at its peak. Perhaps that’s why the following quote from Mike’s book struck me the way it did. He was responding to someone who was very critical of his return to faith and some of the things he’d been saying in public. Perhaps the person criticizing him felt betrayed in a way. Whatever the reason, Mike brought up an important point that I hadn’t thought of before but makes perfect sense to me.

“But if you follow my work, you know I’m not out to convince anyone of anything about God. My work is in response to suffering – there are people for whom the loss of God produces acute pain. Second, you’re right about everything you’ve said. My experience doesn’t prove anything to anyone – not even me.” (p. 139)

Two things stood out for me: the loss of God producing “acute pain” and a religious experience not being reliable proof for anyone, not even for the person who experienced it.

A few months ago I wrote a series of short monologues and one of them was about my desire to talk about Jesus. In the beginning of Mike’s book he writes about being a kind of social outcast (stereotypical “nerd” if you will) as a kid and God being like his friend, someone who was always there who he could talk to about anything.

That was how God was for me, too, especially when I entered my adolescence and didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about most of the stuff going on inside of me. God was often my only friend and I could actually imagine him holding me while I wept because no one else was ever there to hold me. And this concept of God as my best friend carried over into my young adult years and played a crucial role in my first mental breakdown at age twenty-three, while I was studying abroad in France. Religious experience mixed with mania and psychosis if awfully hard to defend, especially if the experience was so impactful and so beautiful to you that you simply don’t want to chock it all up to some sort of brain malfunction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In mid-summer this past summer, I wrote this:

…In fact, to make this easier on all of us, I won’t call myself a “Christian.” It’s not like I belong to a church anyway. Why would I tell you to do something I don’t even do?

Just go ahead and call Jesus my imaginary friend because to talk to someone you can’t see or hear requires a bit of imagination. Call me stupid, irrational, spineless, and childish if you wish but I’ve been trying to cope with being alone for a long time now. It’s not easy when you’ve never quite felt like you belonged anywhere. My closest friends, even my own family, don’t “get” me most of the time. But this Jesus fellow, he gets me. He knows me better than I know myself.

So why don’t you humor me a bit because I don’t have a close friend or a lover anymore. I don’t have someone in my life with whom I feel comfortable enough to share everything. But this Jesus guy, my “imaginary friend” if you will, is all of that and even though I can’t hear an audio voice or feel his physical arms around me when I need someone to comfort me, I still sometimes sense he’s there and it brings me peace.

That’s what I want to talk about, but I won’t because I love having you for a friend and I really don’t want to scare you away.

I did not realize it at the time but much of my “pain” when I abandoned my faith was directly linked to the loss of my best friend and, at times, my only friend: God.

Books fed my doubt when I turned away from my faith. But my return to faith was also fed by literature. I have a tendency to read a book and think the author and I could be best friends. Mike McHargue refers to Donald Miller and Rob Bell, two of the authors who helped me return to faith as well and both of whom I’ve also met. But, unlike Mike, I don’t know how to talk to people I admire when I meet them in real life. With both Bell and Miller I became completely tongue-tied and I think I said something really stupid. I met Rob Bell fairly recently so I can say for a fact that it all went downhill after I mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t know how to talk to celebrities.” But, at least my discomfort and embarrassment made him laugh. If Science Mike ever does a signing here in the Phoenix area, I’ll probably just write a note and hand it to him. It’s so much easier than actually talking.

By the way, I love Mike’s advice for how church people should handle doubt:

“If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.

“My path back to God was paved with grace by those who received my doubt in love.” (p. 119)

Returning to church has been a bit of a challenge for me. No offense to Mike, but I think it’s probably easier if you’re married with children. My quest for a church home is much more difficult when I’m searching alone. And then I have the mental illness thing plaguing me. I once tried to go to seminary but I was too afraid to tell them I had bipolar disorder. I was too afraid to tell them my experience with God was basically dismissed by everyone because it was mixed with mania and psychosis. Hyper-religiosity was the name the psychiatrists gave to it and ever since it happened, my life has been derailed. I was told I couldn’t live and serve in a developing nations if I was taking psyche medicine. I was told most missions or humanitarian organizations would reject me because I’m basically a liability. What a foolish idea to think that I could serve God or even encourage other people to serve God when I’m severely mentally ill!

But I miss being part of a faith community. I suppose I’ll have to drive farther than I’d like to find one but I love Mike McHargue’s list of what a church should be.

“When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But it can’t stop there.

“Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision making and prompt you to put your ideas into love action – to embody the Gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.

“I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” (p. 223)

Anyway, all this is to say, I thank God for Mike McHargue and I’m so glad he shared his story. I’m going to give my copy away, but not as an evangelical tool. I have more friends who are skeptics than I have friends who are believers but they’ve been handed books and tracts from so many well-meaning religious folk that they just don’t care anymore. They’ve heard hateful words from street-corner preachers and have had door-to-door salesmen hang religious flyers on their doorknobs or ring their doorbells in an attempt to force religious beliefs upon them face-to-face. Therefore, if a skeptic friend wants my copy of this book, he or she need only ask. I have only one copy but I will pay the postage to send this copy anywhere in the world. That’s how important I think it is.

 

 

Dear Old Friend….

My Dear Old Friend,

Do you remember me? We’re still friends, right? Although, I guess that all depends on how you define “friend.”

(above: A mix of mostly my voice from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood followed by a clip from Matt Marvane’s single “Un coin de paradis”– “I wish you happiness…The perfume of life is so good this day when you’ve found a reason to exist…I wish you happiness….” Matt Marvane (translated by me))

Anyway, I’ve always considered you a friend. Even when I barely knew you I knew I’d do anything for you. I don’t know if you felt the same about me. But who cares? I was happy when you were near and I think I’d still be happy if I could only see you again, even if just for a moment.

Of course, as time went on, our paths diverged. I mean, we started out as equals. We were both in the same year of college after all. But somewhere along the way you managed to harness your gifts and earned respectability while I squandered mine. You boldly chased your dreams while I self-sabotaged. And now here we are, still running the race only you’re so far ahead of me I can’t even see you anymore. Once more, you’ve taken the crowds with you. There’s no one left to cheer me on aside from a few retirees who are really only there because they’re related to me (or maybe they just pity me).

Signing-Something

You know, one of the reasons I decided to live was because I sucked at dying and each failed suicide attempt pushed you further away. The more I relied on you to bandage my wounds, the less you wanted to see me. And even though I really needed a friend, I forgot how to be a friend. I can see that very clearly now. But at the time, my emotions blinded me.

It was when dying consumed my waking thoughts that friends like you began dropping from my life at an unprecedented rate.

Most of you chose simply to stop answering my calls, texts, and emails, hoping I’d take the hint and leave you alone. And after all these years, I’ve actually had the chance to experience being on the other side. I know it’s the easy way out and I’ve done it too, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to handle things.

Slack-Lining

I may have thought of us as friends, but I could tell in your eyes, I ceased being a friend when the world began to revolve around me and I no longer asked about you. It was before I learned to offer hugs, asking for them instead (can I have a hug?). I needed constant validation. I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to do that. I suck at this. There’s no point in trying anymore. I was so needy that if now-me would’ve met then-me, I’d probably have abandoned me too.

But there was one friend, and only one friend, who ended it right; who cared enough to formally “break-up” with me. She broke up over the phone because she was too far away to do it in person, but we talked for at least an hour. In that time, she told me this was only temporary, a year at most. She loved me, she said. But she was not emotionally capable of handling my self-harm and suicide attempts at the moment. I mean, for God’s sake, I’d been hospitalized twice in one week for drug overdoses! The first of which she’d been there for and she’d witnessed me telling the nurses I wasn’t going to do this again. I’d lied right in front of her – although I’d lied to myself too. I really did believe what I said.

So she said goodbye and of course I cried. Of course I was miserable. I was miserable for a long time but at least I understood. At least she told me how she felt instead of leaving me in the dark as everyone else, including you, had done.

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Fast-forward many years until now and guess what? Many years of talk-therapy and psychiatric medicine have actually helped a lot. Furthermore, it turns out the friend who “broke-up” with me had inadvertently done me a huge favor. She became the voice for all of you and in so doing, she guided me to where I needed to go if I wanted to have any friends at all.

Wasn’t the advent of social media amazing? During the MySpace vs. Facebook wars the word “friend” became a verb and lost much of its original meaning. I kind of wish we had more than one word for “friend” like the French do. When I was in France, I always referred to my “friends” as “amis.” But the French frequently use the word “copin” for “friend” as well. The difference between “amis” and “copins” was simply a matter of how important that person was to you. “Amis” is the stronger term although the French Facebook uses that as well so maybe it too has lost a bit of its meaning in recent years.

Peeking

I have over 200 “friends” on Facebook which isn’t a lot compared to some of those friends’ friends. Some have an upward range of a thousand or more. For the most part, my criteria for “friending” people on Facebook is simple (with a few exceptions). If I’ve met you face to face at least once and I like you, I’ll add you as a friend.

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I remember the early days when I’d receive friend requests from former high school and college mates who I hadn’t seen in years. We’d message one another and catch up a little bit and I’d naively try and arrange miniature reunions with those who lived nearby. But even with my own car and lots of flexibility when it came to time, few people took me up on the offer. Of the two or three people who did, only one still hangs out with me at all. Everyone else just piled on the excuses. Their passiveness sent me one clear message: We’ve moved on. We don’t want you in our lives.

Pixilated-PartyAt least you and many others could use the excuse of distance. We can’t travel across oceans at a moment’s notice. Although it wouldn’t kill us to Skype now and then but I won’t pressure you, lest you prove my fears to be true. (It’s not that you can’t talk with me – it’s that you won’t talk with me)

I almost feel like it’s easier to find someone to date than it is to find a friend in this day and age. I prefer guy-friends most of the time. They’re much less dramatic than us women and they don’t want to waste their time shopping for clothes or doing makeovers. Gay guys are the best because they don’t pose a threat to me and, even if I do develop a little crush on one of them, it’s already quite clear that our relationship will never go beyond the platonic level and I can easily get over such a crush. Straight guys can stay in the friend-zone as long as they’re single, but if they are looking (and not looking for me), it becomes kind of sketchy once they do begin a relationship with someone else. But, if I’m a true friend, I’ll do my best to befriend his significant other too. Usually that’s not hard if he finds a good match to begin with. I’m not referring to a guy who’s at the “best friend” level, mind you. If I met a guy who I considered my best friend and he saw me as his best friend too, I’d definitely want to marry him. But that just hasn’t happened yet, at least not for me.

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Anyway, the point is, I need a friend, a true friend, and they’re so hard to come by these days! You’re as great a friend as you can be from far away but I need to find someone here.

Here’s what I expect in a friend and the kind of friend I aspire to be:

  • First and foremost, a true friend must be honest at all times, even when the truth hurts. Not even a “little white lie” will be tolerated.
  • Someone who lives within a reasonable driving distance and owns a car (this is Phoenix, after all).
  • Someone I can see often and who I look forwarded to seeing.
  • Someone who doesn’t share all the same the same interests as me, but with whom I have enough in common that we can genuinely enjoy our time together.
  • Someone with whom I can laugh uncontrollably but I also feel comfortable enough to cry with.
  • Someone who is secure enough to admit being wrong once in awhile.
  • Someone who may not share the same faith as me but who let’s me talk about my faith sometimes because it’s important to me.
  • Someone who loves me just as am and doesn’t expect me to change but always encourages me to grow.
  • Someone who loves books.
  • Someone who knows how to actively listen.
  • Someone to just be silly with.

The Solo Retreat

I needed to get away and I knew that if I didn’t go now, it would be a long time before the opportunity would arise again. Two nights were all I could afford which meant my solo retreat would have to stay within the boundaries of my state. Luckily, Arizona isn’t all a sizzling, hot desert full of saguaros, prickly pears, rattle snakes, and buzzards. Just a couple hours drive north of Phoenix and I’m at a blissful nine thousand foot elevation, surrounded by pine trees and a cool, mountain breeze. I’m in Flagstaff.

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I’ve been to Flagstaff many times. I used to be intimately familiar with it because I’d gone to school, lived, and worked there when I was younger.

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Solo retreats are a wonderful way to recharge. I’ve had enough practice that each one I take is better than the last. This particular one couldn’t have come at a better time. A week or so prior, I’d had an emotional wakeup call from a rather unexpected source. Ten years ago, I would have let my emotions consume me. But this time I still wept, but I also interpreted this reality check as a sign. My life needed to change, in a big way. And for that, I needed to separate myself from the usual distractions. I needed to be alone.

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There was no plan really. I brought lots of books, magazines, paper and writing utensils. I left the laptop at home and went analog as much as possible. I posted a picture a time or two to Instagram and Facebook, but only when I was in my hotel room where there was Wi-Fi.

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I arrived in Flagstaff on a Sunday. Since it was still a too early to check into my hotel room, I browsed through the untranslated French at Bookmans, choosing a book by Françoise Sagan that had what appeared to be a squashed bug stuck to the title page. I bought the book anyway as well as a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then I sat down with a frozen coffee drink in the café. By the time I was done it was time to check in.

As soon as my hotel room was ready, I checked in, unpacked a little, and just rested until the sun was low enough in the sky for optimum photography. Besides, I needed a little time to adjust to the altitude.

IMG_4703Around four-thirty, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown. When I arrived, I followed the sound of drumming and shouting to its source: an anti-police protest.

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The protesters were a small but passionate group of young people. I watched them carry their signs chanting, “Black lives matter; Red lives matter; Blue lives murder.” There were no African American protesters but there were Native Americans and sympathetic white people shouting and marching through streets and alley ways. Ironically, they were followed by a few policemen. I’m not sure who they were supposed to be protecting – us or them. I don’t know the stories of the people the protestors seemed to be honoring either. Were they killed by the police too, like so many we’ve been hearing about on the news?

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I’ve never participated in a protest. I remember talking to someone about it when I was studying in France fourteen years ago, though. In France, it seemed like the young people were always protesting something. Protesting was second only to going on strike, it seemed. My French friend and I wondered if protests ever actually made a difference. He didn’t think so. From what he understood, most protests were more like social gatherings or parties anyway. It’s like, let’s all unite under a common hate, make signs, and yell at people because it’s fun. Afterward we’ll have a beer together.

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I went to the bar in the basement of Charlie’s for dinner. It was nice being the only customer and making small talk with the young bartender. But I should’ve known it was too good to last. Two young ladies came in and sat at the bar a little ways from me. They were blond, tipsy, and very pretty. I attempted to talk to them as well and, when that didn’t work, I pulled a book out of my purse and endeavored to read.

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As more people shuffled in, I abandoned the bar and finished my dinner at a nearby table. I must’ve looked like a sight for sore eyes anyway: fat, no makeup, and a scarf on my head to keep sweat from dripping in my eyes. The other people at the bar were, at the very least, a decade younger than me. I imagine when they reach my age, they’ll be married with children and bars such as this will no longer seem appealing.

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As I wandered around town, I’d sometimes overhear the newest generation of university students talking about their assignments or extra-curricular activities. In the poetry section at the bookstore, I witnessed two twenty-something ladies fan-girl over dead poets. They exuded a such a raw, youthful passion the likes of which I’d not seen since I was their age. One of the girls talked about lining her bookshelves with beautiful, vintage editions of the timeless works of great poets.

IMG_4922The next day I decided to I needed to see dinosaur tracks and headed north on 89A toward Tuba City and Page. I’d read about the tracks in Phoenix Magazine but I didn’t expect the road to feel quite so long. Most of the drive was through the Navajo Reservation and, aside from the occasional Navajo jewelry vendors, there weren’t many places to stop along the way. So I listened to my Voyage Imaginaire playlist with its 283 songs about journeys, destinations, home or being foreign. I also squeezed in a few songs to help me imagine I’m already far from here. Sometimes I tell myself it’s too long for a single playlist, and yet it sustained all the way there and back.

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The dinosaur tracks were pretty amazing. It remind me of my brief obsession with paleontology when I was a kid, before Jurassic Park was even a thing. I asked my guide if there was anything in traditional Navajo beliefs to explain dinosaurs and she said they don’t even have a word for dinosaur in her language (I think she said the elders used to call it “giant bird” or something like that). But she’d lived on that part of the Res her whole life. The fossilized footprints were kind of like her backyard where she played as a little girl.

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I had no clue where to go next but the day was still young so I just followed the signs to Page. Lake Powell, Glen Canyon and the dam were major tourist attractions, especially for international tourists.

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On my way out, I stopped to see Horseshoe Bend, a 1.4 mile round trip hike overflowing with international tourists. I heard, among other languages, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the most pleasant sound for me was French. I spent a lot of time simply eaves-dropping on French conversations. But I couldn’t find the courage to interrupt the French. I’d been listening to French music in the car and still knew how to speak it well. I just didn’t feel like I fit in around so many attractive people. I thought of a time when I wasn’t fat and dining with Europeans. I remember how they’d make fun of fat people, especially fat Americans. It didn’t bother me then because I wasn’t the object of ridicule. But now I’m acutely aware of what I’ve become. I am the negative American stereotype, the person I never dreamed I’d become. Couple that with the scarf I wore on my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes, my lack of makeup (also due to sweating issues), and the adult acne that had broken out all over my lower face. If you knew nothing about me but what you saw, you might not feel inclined to talk with me either.

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I did speak to one French guy. I asked him in English how the view was from where he was standing and he silently signaled that he didn’t understand so I switched languages and suddenly he was no longer mute. He had lots to say, so long as it was in his own language.

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But our small talk was brief. He’d come with family. All the international tourists had come with family, or, at the very least, friends. The point is, no one came alone. As far as I could see, I was the only solitary tourist which also robbed me of my desire to strike up conversations with strangers. Each person already had with them the only person or people they cared to talk with. No need to have a superficial friendship with an American, especially a weird-looking, fat, thirty-six-year-old, unmarried, woman like me.

IMG_5014Maybe I’m projecting but I don’t think so. I’m very observant. It is what it is and, though I can’t change everything about me, I can lose weight and find a good dermatologist to help me with my face. It’s just going to take time and it’s not going to be easy. (More on this later.)

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Back in Flagstaff, I headed to the grocery store to score a picnic dinner. I remember when it used to be called New Frontiers. Now it’s part of the Whole Foods corporation. That didn’t bother me so much as the entire “village” that’s been built up around it. The fancy new apartments built above high-end retail chains are still looking for tenants. But what kind of people would want to live there? I know people who’ve lived in Flagstaff for most (if not all) their lives and they’d probably find this sort of thing appalling. Even the “village” street names attempt to give the new place a kind of “Old World” feel like “Piccadilly,” “Regent,” or “Cambridge.” It’s like they’re trying to make a miniature Europe except European villages derive their charm from their distinct personalities built over time. The people who own and work in the shops are the ones living above them. McDonald’s may be in cities the world over, but the village should not be defined by multi-national corporations.

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Tuesday I drove to Lake Mary hoping to snap some photos but it turned out I needed a permit to park my car there. So I turned around and headed to Sedona by way of Oak Creek Canyon where I also hoped to find photo ops, but I couldn’t seem to find a place to park my car for free there either. It was all national forest land and almost everything the government didn’t owned was privately owned.

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I wondered what happened to the commons. Is there anything that isn’t “owned” by anyone anymore? Then again, maybe it’s better this way. Nature’s worst enemy is man.

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Finally I found free parking near the most popular, touristy street in Sedona. I switched to a longer lens for this one. By the way, you wouldn’t believe how many people I saw with SLR cameras while I was away! There may be a camera on every smart phone but the more sophisticated amateur photography is far from dead.

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From Sedona I went to Jerome where there were more tourists, only in this case they were mostly Americans. Storm clouds followed me there, but I didn’t mind. Give me a cloudy day over a sunny day any day. Besides, in a place like Jerome, clouds only enhance beauty and mystery.

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The clouds followed me all the way home. There was a little rain as drove through Prescott Valley but mostly the sky was amazing. I had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times just to capture the clouds. I wish I’d have caught some lightening as well, but lightening never seems to cooperate with me. I’ve seen some brilliant photographs of lightening by professionals, but I have yet to figure out how they do it. It can’t be sheer luck each time.

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Then I came home.

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