I used to think in words: sentences neatly printed on a thick cream page, the type of slightly furry paper used in ’70’s paperbacks, the spines worn, gluey threads fraying from use. Tangible images existed in my head, sure, but only as fleeting, blurry still shots, indistinct scenes whirling in the background, out of focus behind the clarity of printed typeface. The dominant narrative was in chapters, pages, paragraphs and sentences: perfectly punctuated, with a beginning, middle and end.
Because I could read so easily, so quickly, at such a young age, because words and stories became my inner world before I could really articulate confidently to the external, I didn’t realize that other people didn’t think like me: in complex, literary style monologues complete with correct capitalization and full stops. I did not realize, either, that what allowed me to write so fluently and easily before I could make my way in the world also, in a sense, stopped me from participating in the world fully. I could not explain what I was, or what I felt, or what I wanted to say, and I could not let you know that I understood, but by god I could write it. There is something strangely removed about the intimacy of a novel and a memoir, the absence of images allowing the reader to create a reality utterly unique, private and solipsistic. So too, for the writer: even if what we are writing is real, its translation into a literary form renders it into something new. Something fictional. Something with pages which we can rifle through mentally with an imaginary ink-stained finger.
When my husband left, I wrote still, but the writing did not save me like it used to do. Before my divorce, writing had been my SSRI, pumping serotonin through a system which had a hard time making it without help. When it was just me alone with a broken, empty bank account, bills multiplying like melanomas and a child whose reality looked set to be grim and full of an angular, gray weeping, hungry mother surrounded by the ghosts of a dead marriage and fading botox, I took the pills. I took Zoloft because I could not function every day without shaking and crying and it brought me back to a flatlined, muted reality mercifully absent of RBG’s and technicolor, without, even, shadows and contrast. I took Klonapin because the anxiety would crawl up into my throat and sleep there like a dead mammal making it hard to catch my breath. I took Clonidine to suppress the nightmares, the inevitable, unfathomable reactions from trauma induced by the most innocuous of interactions, touches, words, thoughts. I could basically function inside my home with my son, but every time I left my little apartment, I felt like I was walking into no man’s land, dodging grenades and IED’s, more terrified of Venice Beach than I had ever felt walking around Afghanistan ten weeks pregnant. I was told by my divorce attorneys not to admit to taking the pills because it would prove I was crazy. But I was crazy because I was going through hell, and because the pills - and the court ruling - cut off access to the only thing that helped me: writing.
I don’t really know how I appeared, or how I functioned during this time because I have no record of it. The words failed me, the benzos stole my memory, and the person wielding a camera - my photographer husband - used it only when he thought there was a good chance of getting me to break down, cuss and cry and scream in front of a cop. A perfect opportunity for a nice piece of divorce court evidence. Sometimes a picture will pop up in my Facebook feed - remember this from two years ago, taken a few days after your husband left? No? Well, apparently you were still functioning, you were still existing…. Existing, yes. I was a husk, a will o’ the wisp, an ocean of tears which did nothing to cushion the pills rattling around my styrofoam soul. Before the attorney bills rolled in and wiped me out entirely, I did something strange, something extremely impractical, something rather stupid, something which, on the face of it, might prove the selfishness and idiocy which had led me Department F in Santa Monica Courthouse.
I spent $1500 on a digital camera I didn’t know how to use, and a bunch of lenses.
Over the year that followed, the camera sat in a box, ignored. I tried to sign up for a film class, but as someone with a degree already, my enrollment priority was so low I could never get into any interesting classes. In February of this year, I was told that my cash benefits would be cut unless I went back to college, in which case they’d help me with childcare. I took out the camera, scrolled past the filmmaking classes, and enrolled in basic photography
My teacher was a bored commercial photographer who didn’t really want to be there, and struggled valiantly through blurry shots of people’s dogs, students who couldn’t speak English, students who could speak English and were just assholes, and arrogant kids who showed up only to roll their eyes and slink off before our three hours was over. I sat next to a white girl about my age, working a job she didn’t like that much, and a Latina hairdresser from Redwoods with three kids and a dynamic, charming personality. I learned about aperture, shutter speeds, ISO, resolution, pixels. I learned about still shots and moving images. I started shooting, perversely, on digital, and finding something too clean, too immediate, too perfect about the crisp images I produced, when the three month course ended and I had handed in my assignments, I moved quickly on to analog, kept the 7D for filmmaking, but spent 50 bucks instead on a fully manual AE-1.
I took black and white photography classes in a small darkroom I found downtown. In lieu of dates, I hid away in a safe light watching pictures of a life I couldn’t see until it developed in the tray in front of me, Instead of seeking out new, destructive ways to make other men pay for drinks and enter our life only to destroy it, I took pictures. I fell in love with the strange, warm smell of the fix, the indigo developer draining away from the tank telling me something had transformed in that light-sealed container. I began to educate myself on photographers in no particular order - Vivian Maier, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Leonard Freed, Trent Parke, Ansel Adams - flicking impatiently through pictures, sneaking peeks at the dust covered books on my ex-husband’s bookshelves until an image would grab me, at which point I’d stare at it, try and figure out what they had done, what I could learn.
I turned my camera on myself and my son. I had no memories and no words, so at least I could have images to help goad my exhausted brain into tangling the disconnected episodes of my disastrous life into some kind of narrative form, into some coherent visual story. I was too frightened to take pictures of other people. Taking pictures, like writing about others, comes with a high cost, a price I was too exhausted to bet on. I did not curate my images, but just printed as many as possible, sometimes making as many as eight full prints just to dodge and burn a particular section which lay hidden by light or shadow until the lights and the filters and the enlargers and the timing would goad it gently into existence. The process of developing and the thick, warm bunker-like quiet of the darkroom worked better than words, and better even, than pills, and definitely better than alcohol.
In those intervening three months between my husband leaving and my taking the pills, my monologue was electric, fingernails down a blackboard, relentless and punishing. Gradually, as the desire to capture life resurfaced like a dead body bobbing up from the misty fog of artificially manufactured serotonin, I found that the memories would emerge swollen and distorted. The picture of Nye I thought was taken last week was actually a shot from three months before. I swore blind this image of a dog peering out of the poke hole in a basement was taken when the light was falling and Nye and I were walking back from Toberman Park only a couple of weeks after we had moved inland and left Venice Beach. In my head I took at least three frames in the evening gloom, that fragile light when golden hour has passed and night has yet to fall - but when the negative unspools from the tank there is just one shot, the edges crisp and clean indicating the light was strong, probably taken at high noon sometime in July, before we went to London. Were these rabbit holes in my memory always there, and the images have just alerted me to them? Or have the pills that saved me drilled through a calcified brain, rendered it soft and spongey? What else have my shot adrenal glands concealed from me over the past two years?
I recently made a plan. It’s simple, goes something like: file for bankruptcy. Claim citizenship. Take pictures. Write. Finish my film classes. Leave this place. Leave this place. Leave this place far, far behind, and seek out someplace where the light isn’t so perfect, but might be softer, and kinder.