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.