During this time of year, new years and old years collide. Rosh Hashana is the time of reflection, the time of healing. And, by far, it is my favorite time of year.
My childhood finds its happiest moments at my grandmother’s Rosh Hashana table at lunchtime. I’ll never forget the goodies on top of her lace tablecloth – bagels and lox combined with Sephardic foods such as eggs, squash and spinach frittada and cheese-filled borekas, with the sides twisted up by Nony’s delicate fingers. My mother made the apple jelly, which is open on the table next to the traditional round challah. She made a huge batch of jelly every year and gave it only to the people she liked, from the cantor to our teachers.
Being with my grandparents made our holidays. As small children my sister, cousin and I had run of the Spanish-style duplex on Crescent Heights, where they had lived for 30 years. All the cousins make an appearance, alongside uncles and aunts, clergy and close family friends who had been around for so long you couldn’t tell whether or not they’re actually related; they all found a way to Papu and Nony’s house. It hosted the people I love the most and those who I never met. My father’s father, grandpa Saul, adored my mother’s parents and spent his last day of his life at their Rosh Hashana table. There was family history in this place that my tiny child’s body couldn’t hold up yet.
We eventually moved to Northern California, and my grandparents relocated to a Beverly Hills apartment, pristine and white as opposed to Crescent Heights’ colorful and historic charm. One Rosh Hashana, I refuse to go to temple. I’m sobbing in a pink dress with a patchwork skirt, throwing a tantrum as my father sits with me calmly. After several hours, I calm down and we go, with most of my morning spent looking at the stained glass on the ceiling of the synagogue. And, of course, we come back for lunch at my grandparents’ house.
We move back to Thousand Oaks, and I join the temple choir. I was proud to don a white robe for Rosh Hashana, but my mother hates it; it always makes us late for lunch. Eventually, I give up the choir, deciding instead to gossip with my friend Melissa in the bathroom and follow my friend Allison and her sisters around, admiring their handcrafted talits. But we always look forward to what comes after.
At 17, my sister, cousin and I become too cool for just sitting at my grandparents’ table during lunch, instead choosing to chase around our younger cousins Jonah and Hannah. After they leave, we decide to wander to the bar in the den. We’re hanging out there and I discover a pack of Viagra. At 17, I’m disgusted. But in later years, I realized how special it was that my grandparents were still so hot for each other that they were having sex into their 80s.
At 21, I go to college in Fullerton, but after services I trek up to the 10 freeway and make the drive to Beverly Hills for lunch. The dog, Lucy, is hiding under the small kitchen table, mad she got dragged into this ordeal. Nony is cooking as always, my mother helping her, and my aunt Sophie is visiting from Florida. But my Papu isn’t here entirely. A nurse is nearby at all times. His shuffling feet don’t walk as much as they used to. He can barely speak or remember anyone or anything – except the kids. He remembers his granddaughters and his great-niece and nephews, particularly two-year-old Sammy, who he adores.
It’s his last Rosh Hashana.
The venue switches. My grandmother moves from the apartment in Beverly Hills to the Jewish Home and my cousin Lorrie decides to host Rosh Hashana lunches from this point on. The transition is smooth, with bagels and lox, apple jelly and poached salmon. There are no more borekas here, but my mother makes sure to always bring some frittada. Nony sits with her sister Esther as “the kids” all sit outside in the backyard. There are several new additions to this gathering, though – my cousin Kacee as well as my soon to be ex-husband the most noteworthy.
Eventually, Nony starts to fade too, forgetful and frightened. And soon, she leaves our world of Rosh Hashana lunches. As does Esther and her family, who cut ties.
We continue on despite the changes, both good and bad. My mother still making apple jelly for the holiday and secretly slipping some to the cantor in the middle of Rosh Hashana services before we head over to Lorrie’s house. Lorrie producing a cake for my mother and my cousin Dova’s birthdays and they blow out the candles together. There is raucous conversation and laughter, along with teaching my younger cousins things we shouldn’t be even talking them about, but do anyway.
My cousin Sarah moves to Los Angeles with her family and her two young boys, followed by her parents after they retire. I divorce and come to Rosh Hashana lunches by myself again. The younger cousins who I once chased around my grandparents’ apartment in Beverly Hills head off to college. As my mother grows sick, she isn’t able to last as long at the lunches; she gets tired and needs to rest, and the drive back to Thousand Oaks is long enough without it.
Two years ago, I’m mad at my mother. I’m standing in her kitchen and want her to teach me how to make apple jelly for the holiday so we can bring it to Lorrie’s house. She doesn’t want to put in the work to make it, with sterilizing the jars and grating the apples. I tell her I’m happy to do everything if she just tells me what to do. She still says no.
“Mom, you have to pass it on!” I yell at her. “You have to teach me, because one day you’re not going to be around to do it and the tradition will die!”
That was my mother’s last Rosh Hashana. I really didn’t want to be right in that argument. I still don’t.
The Rosh Hashana lunch after her death, and my mother seems to haunt Lorrie’s house. I can see it my cousin’s face; the agony of my mother’s absence is in her every movement. The house seems to be emptier without her presence.
Yet the kids sit outside, joined now by my friend Gary, who my mother treated like a son. And we find laughter, tell stories, eat to our hearts’ content. The food isn’t the exact same as my grandmothers’ table, but the people are just as good. My cousin Amy laughs as her fiancé Kevin makes corny dad jokes. I ruffle Sammy’s hair and ask him all about school and politics. My sister enjoys being with the family away from Kansas. And somewhere in that crowd was my mother’s ghost, because even in death her spirit wouldn’t be able to bear missing a Rosh Hashana lunch.
Yesterday, I stood in the kitchen, preparing for my dad’s and my Rosh Hashana dinner on Wednesday night. My father came and looked at the baking sheet with raw borkeas on them, with the twisted up sides made by my less delicate fingers. His eyes sparkled with tears – even just for a minute, my mother, grandmother, grandfather, and even his own father were alive again in his kitchen. He missed them. I missed them. We were both lonely without them, yet continued to fulfill our family traditions and share them with the people we love.
During Rosh Hashana, we ask in temple to be inscribed into the Book of Good Life. But that book sometimes needs to be pulled off the shelf and re-read. We need to tell the stories again – the good ones, the funny ones, the sad ones, the embarrassing ones. All of the stories need to find a way to our lips, and laughter should roll off our tongues. And they need to be told to the ones who remember them and the people who somehow wander into our lives and homes, becoming our family.
That way, we’re all at the table together, tied by tradition, and not even death can separate us. And that is the best wish I can give for the Jewish New Year.
Julia always came on Wednesdays.
My mother would buy all her cleaning supplies and make sure the rags were washed so Julia could do her job. She would come in a teal pickup truck around 9 a.m. and begin to clean, as my mother would sit in her office and work.
Julia was a tiny Latina woman who barely spoke any English. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she wore low-slouching jeans and sneakers. She would be there about three hours, and my mother would pay her $80 in cash. During that time, my mother would talk to her in Spanish, as she was fluent. They talked about Julia’s husband, who was our gardener, and her young daughter.
I never asked if Julia was legal. My mother never told me if she was or not. It didn’t matter to her; Julia always did a good job, so she paid her.
One day, Julia came to the house tired. My mother noticed, and asked about her daughter. She began to cry; her daughter was very sick, they had been at the hospital with her all night. My mother paid Julia and sent her home to sleep; she would see her next week.
My mother believed in America, and believed that people should be able to work. She wasn’t giving free rides, but at the same time never treated those around her as less than; she even sponsored our childhood nanny for her green card. When we were younger they were invited to family get-togethers and birthday parties as guests. There was nothing dividing us.
My mother would remember her grandparents, immigrants pursuing a dream in America, seeking a better life and working hard all the way there. Taking odd jobs, from delivering flowers to running errands, in the hopes that their children would have a better life. She was on the other side now.
Julia came rain or shine, but as the years passed the circumstances changed. Cancer was on the bill for my mother. Julia kept cleaning and they kept talking, even at the weakest points of her recovery. Eventually she came back up from her bout with breast cancer, but not before sliding down once again into complications.
As time went on, my mother got sicker and her hospital visits more frequent. I had moved back home to help her, and would be there with Julia on Wednesdays when no one else could be. One week, my father and I had to be at the hospital with her. I pulled $80 from my savings account, gave it to Julia, and sent her home. We would see her next week.
Eventually, another Wednesday came. My mother was in the hospital again, my dad was with her and I was at home.
This was the morning she died.
Hanging up the phone, I started to scream and cry in her office. Julia rushed in, and I told her mom was dead. She shook her head and broke down, tears running down her face. We held each other for several minutes. She continued to clean afterwards, but I could hear Julia sobbing down the hallways.
When I left for the hospital, my cousin came to stay at the house. After Julia was done cleaning, my cousin and her simply held each other on the couch for a good half an hour before Julia went home.
My father continued having Julia clean the house after my mother died. It was almost in keeping Julia was keeping a part of her alive. He would get cash for her and leave it on the dining room table every Wednesday until the day he moved out.
And afterwards, like a dream, Julia seemed to disappear just as quickly. And it breaks my heart, wondering what has happened to her, her husband and her daughter.
I think of her child when she was in the hospital. How is this child different from me? I lived with a mother who I love, who cared for me when I was ill. I had a father who worked hard. We were past our immigrant stage, settled in America after generations of distance from my great-grandparents. They were once the dreamers of America, working hard and making new lives for themselves and their children here. My mother never forgot that. And she saw it in the ladies who worked for us.
I left my mother’s house to settle into a guesthouse in Beverly Hills. I saw the Latin women walking tiny dogs up and down the street, or trekking up the part of Coldwater Canyon without sidewalks wearing traditional maid uniforms. The Mercedes and Audis of this road combine with rumbling large trucks filled with lawnmowers, shears and Latin men, the ones constructing the fancy houses and maintaining the yards for the people so demanding and determined to live in the most famous zip code in the country.
And yet… do these people who they work for see them as people? That they have families that they love and still work no matter the circumstances, because otherwise they don’t get paid? That no matter how many 60-hour weeks their employers have, those people will still have enough money at the end to afford their homes and pay for vacations, fancy cars and private schools, while their workers are lucky to barely make rent?
Do those people remember dreams, and the dreamers who have them?
This country, our worlds are nothing without people like Julia — human beings who love and see more to the world than the status quo. Who reducing to “legal” versus “illegal” makes us forget that they are actually flesh and blood people with hopes and desires. Who work hard for their families and keep moving forward in the hopes that their children will have better lives here. Not everyone remembers.
My mother did. She would call to me, “Remember who you are.” She would remind me regularly that we are a country made from immigrants. She remembered until the day she died that America was for everyone.
Now it’s my turn. It should be yours too.
Standing at the craps table in Henderson, air-conditioned within an inch of my life in this refuge from the Vegas heat, I take the emerald green dice from the stickman and blow on them.
I see the people standing around me at the table — a short, sad yet angry Israeli next to me in a salmon pink shirt smoking cigarettes; a tall black man on the other side who eyes me warily, as I am the only female at the table; an older gentleman playing with his chips nervously, their clicking sound echoing in my ears; and the giant of a guy who identifies himself as my boyfriend, throwing down money.
Tossing the dice along the top, getting the hard eights and sixes, I watch my partner in craps whoop as our chips graduate from one row to two. My nose is sniffling from traveling from arid desert air to the chilled casinos as I continue roll after roll, my bags stacked under the table with two Jameson and gingers just above them.
He passionately kisses me after I hit seven and my turn is over. Calls me lucky and gets us comps for the buffet upstairs. I’m barely able to eat because I don’t feel well as he loads up three plates full; food piled so high it practically measures up to his almost 400-pound, 6’6 frame.
We have been together for three months, and generally things were working. We enjoyed each other’s company, my family liked him, my friends enjoyed how he made me feel. Yet there was a gnat of truth buzzing in my ear: He didn’t want to be monogamous, and continued dating multiple women. He got angry and jealous when I would suggest dating other men. He was controlling in bed, and my pleasure was completely ignored. He didn’t want to get married, although he was warming up to the idea of having a child.
I told him we have different values. He said we didn’t. We continued on, although I sensed something not right. He was bringing me in and pushing me out; putting me on calls with his mother, giving me a key to his house, and yet not wanting to compromise on things I requested.
I wanted to end it, but something told me to keep giving it shot after shot. All the issues were just me, I told myself. It was my past, my fears, my anxieties. And now here I was with him, in Las Vegas.
He’s in his element; he lived here for three years, knew everything about placing bets and getting what you want. Every show has a comp, every venue comes with the wave of his hand as he parked at the valet. He’s always walking five steps ahead of me, playing with his phone every spare second, my feet barely able to keep up.
I’m lost here. I hadn’t been to Vegas in almost two years. Yet every minute with him there is a thing to do outside our hotel room. I pack dresses I never get to change into as I’m shunted from local businesses to fancy pools with giant facades, from dramatic theaters to elaborate casinos. I always dreamed of experiencing Vegas as a VIP, and these were princess-style treatments. I should feel special.
I miss my friends back in Los Angeles, who are celebrating birthdays without me. I’m not with my father for Father’s Day. I should be happy that I’m with my so-called boyfriend in Vegas and he’s actually tagging me on Facebook posts, but at the same time I feel like he’s hiding more than he’s showing.
He’s surrounded by all the things that make him feel like a king, with a cute little piece of arm candy to take it in with. But I could be any girl he feels like pampering at that given moment. He doesn’t see me, ask me what I want to do or how I’m feeling, even though my throat feels like it’s on fire. We’re just floating along in the heat.
As we walk past the Paris, I dream of real Paris, and in New York New York I long for the city’s cursing residents. The world was designed to be here at our fingertips, yet I felt further and further from it as he talks about his dreams but never asks about mine. Facades and fantasies in the desert heat, as I stand in a bright fuchsia dress as he barely grooms himself enough to go out to the nice restaurant I picked for that last evening — the thank you for our trip, overlooking the Bellagio fountains.
Something changes in there. His constant phone companion is gone. He cuddles closer to me, sharing food off forks and kissing me deeply. Finding a way to make deep conversation. Taking me to the Bellagio fountains and through the hotel’s conservatory, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
At the end of the evening, he asks if I want ice cream. I nod furiously. Although there’s no ice cream, we find a Jamba Juice, sit on a bench and split a smoothie, laughing about the man who was wandering through the mall farting, giggling about all the things we saw.
This was my version of heaven, all that I wanted from him in this relationship. Not fancy pools and VIP shows, crap tables or blown-on dice. Just the two of us, a smoothie, true companionship and overwhelming laughter. This is where I felt special.
It fades away just as fast. The next day he makes me cry at breakfast during a debate about religion he asks me incredulously if I think I’ll see my mom after I die. The entire drive home he texts and calls customer service on a never-ending loop, yelling at them to the point where I become scared and cry again. I ask to talk to my dad just as we cross the California border; he doesn’t let me until we reach Pasadena. I’m silent for hours, wishing to be close to him the way I was the night before.
When we get back to his house, I ask to use his bathroom before I leave. I see another girl’s makeup on the counter. He begins stumbling in excuses, claiming it’s his female roommate’s. Yet two weeks before he said he was strict about his roommate’s stuff not being in his bathroom.
I know him better, and unload on him the truth: That the last time he was in Vegas, he took another girl and asked me to watch his dogs. He probably did the same thing again, and I wasn’t dumb. He never hid the fact he dates multiple women, but lacked discretion.
“We just had a great weekend,” he lamented. “Can’t we just enjoy this? I don’t want a serious conversation right now.”
He never wants a serious conversation. Not about the future nor the past. He just wants the hedonism of now.
“That’s not the point,” I replied. “I think I might be falling for you, and I need to know that this is a thing before we move forward.”
He responds. “I care about you deeply, and I like the fact that you’re getting attached to me.”
No. That’s not right. I deserve a better answer. A worthy answer for who I am as a person. And he didn’t have one.
He asks me what I want. I say I want to be with him. He echoes the words, but I don’t believe him. He kisses me under his jacaranda tree and I walk away, thinking about where this relationship was going. And it’s not in the right direction.
I realized this was a person who would refuse to change, and it wasn’t worth giving ultimatums and demands. I deserved more than comps and craps tables. I needed a relationship where I counted.
I break up with him via email; it takes me a week to get the courage to go through with it, block him on Facebook and drop off the key in his mailbox. I ask for monogamy, knowing I’ll never receive it. That he won’t chase after me nor shed a single tear for my absence; there would always be another girl to replace me.
As the breakup settles in, I see things clearer, like a veil being lifted or the relief of Pacific breezes after the stifling Vegas heat. I see him for who he is beyond our Vegas trip — his close-mindedness, bullying and bigotry; his grabs at control by any means necessary, whether through chronic overeating or manipulating women. Although the sadness of losing his good qualities still stung, I was better off finding someone worthy.
We had a Vegas relationship; a façade, a dream, an image presented to the world of happiness yet simmering under the brim with emptiness and pain. That wasn’t a relationship that represented me.
When it came to love, I wanted a Jamba Juice and laughter relationship, a passionate kissing relationship, a deep conversations relationship, a put-your-phone-away-because-the-other-person-is-so-good relationship. A place beyond arm candy, but rather fully fleshed souls trying to find a way through life together. Where reality lived, and what happened in it wasn’t just sinful nights in the desert, but the foundation for something even greater.
And now, as a single girl once more, I realize I truly am lucky.
Once upon a time, there was a girl with no words.
I read about her in the yellowing pile of papers that my father has handed to me, because my mother seemed to save everything. The typewriter font gave away its age, hinting at the clinical and nature of the study of this girl. The girl with no words.
She is obviously smart, but there is a problem: She can’t speak. Well, not really. She makes squeaks and can mimic, either telling those around her what she wants through actions or pointing. But she has no language; she doesn’t understand.
The girl is taken in for further evaluation. At three years old, her language skills are registered in the 14th percentile. She can barely form sentences.
Page after page, improvements come, but new challenges rise up. She has awkward social skills. She can’t hold a pencil correctly. There are lots of tears, and temper tantrums that forbid outings to the grocery store. Every step is excruciatingly detailed.
I continue to flip through, not recognizing this girl. Even though she has my family, my birthdate, my name.
Yet she can’t be me. The files go on to show imagination-fueled pages with scribbled drawings, trying desperately to tell stories. It shows test scores rising from language in the 14th percentile at three to my eventual 99th percentile at 16.
In between the reports, there are scribbled notes from teachers and therapists. “She is a great storyteller.” “She reads beautifully in front of class.” “She’s so creative.”
Those I recognize: my love of reading, sharing and storytelling run deep. But it all involved language.
And once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, under extensive language therapy with the freemasons of the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Aphasia in Los Angeles. Before this point, I was thought to be either deaf or autistic, even almost committed to a psychiatric ward for children. It was the Scottish Rite who reassured my mother in her tears after seeing me throw a tantrum during my first evaluation, “Don’t worry, we see this behavior all the time in children with language problems.”
Half of my therapy was onsite, and the other half was with my mother. She would feed me an M&M every time I got a word — until I got too many words. Then she switched to using wind-up toys as a reward; a visual treat in lieu of a sugary one.
It switched over as I started school. After trying my hand at a normal kindergarten, I was sent to a special school and pulled out of classes for language exercises. We drove long distances for even more training with additional specialists.
Hours and hours were spent on me, without me realizing the consequences of people focusing too much on one individual. Relationships were strained, fights grew stronger, rifts were made that could never be repaired. All these sacrifices made for the girl with no words.
After being seen by a doctor at 10 years old to participate in a UCLA study for ADHD, he was worried when my scans came back with a giant white spot on the brain; something he feared was a tumor. After it came back negative, he asked my mother, “Was there anything unusual about her development?”
“Now that you mention it…” she replied.
The doctor then realized an unusual truth: I was born with no language center in my brain. Rather, years of speech therapy helped develop artificial pathways to make sure that I could learn; as opposed to having a left-brain language center like most people, mine developed on both the right and left sides.
He also told my mother that, as a result, I probably lack a lot of the memories of that time. Language is tied to memory, which makes sense as someone who didn’t always have it. My childhood exists on almost a foreign plane that I can barely recall. Little details come up here and there, of white lace dresses and little porcelain circus animals, but there are very few moments I can recall with certainty.
At age 12, my junior high determined that my language abilities had caught up to my peers, and I was done with therapy. But the resentment had built between my mother and me; a part of me wonders if it’s because she thought I should be more grateful for the sacrifices she made for my speech therapy which I couldn’t remember.
Then, at 13, something strange happened. The girl with no words became a writer.
A teacher singled her out. Her name was Mrs. Meir. She called my mother in the year that was my darkest. I had been inappropriately touched in the hallways of my school. When I told the administration, they didn’t believe me. Eventually I threatened to kill myself at a Jewish weekend retreat. I felt so invisible.
Yet she found me in the darkness.
“Your daughter is getting a C in my English class,” she said. “Your daughter is too good of a writer to be getting a C in my English class.” In those days, I never heard that I was good at anything.
I may have been the girl with no words, but now I was determined to get them.
It led to hours and hours and hours of words on pages, writing in cursive or typing away on a keyboard. Projects and projects piled up, from personal essays and short stories to full-fledged attempts at novels. Poetry-filled notebooks, two-act plays, screenplays, television pilots and experimentations with different writing styles filled up my computer memory; even my Facebook statuses were an excuse to express. From the back of my boring history classes into college and beyond, I never stopped.
Although at times I struggled, particularly when I was hyper-criticized to the point where I could barely move, I would always find a way to put those mental crayons to chaos on a page. If there was one thing I was taught as the girl with no words, it was there was always another way.
Eventually I became an editor, coaching other writers. That has meant correcting my father’s grammar and spelling when he asks, helping my friends write emails and even developing a freelancing career. Suddenly, the girl with no words grew up to be the woman with all of them.
Last August, I participated in the Landmark Advanced Course, almost three months after my mother had died and one year from my seminar. The original Landmark Seminar helped reconcile the two of us before she died; now, in grief, I returned.
We sat in the room with the chalkboards as our instructor drew on them the basic facets of communication — the 101 concepts of sender and receiver, of how we give a message versus how it is caught by the other person.
“Everything in the world is shaped by language,” he said. And I realized in that moment, it shaped me. It was me.
And as we are allowed to do in the seminars, I went to the microphone to speak, and I told them this story: of once upon a time, I was the girl with no words, who couldn’t talk, couldn’t understand, could barely communicate and wasn’t able to make friends. The girl with no words, who became the woman who used words for her art.
“I’m a G-d damn miracle!” I blurted out.
There were cheers after that as I sobbed, because still inside me is the girl with no words, who was a lump of a child until she was molded by therapists, doctors and my very own mother. Who sits and reads yellowed papers and can understand how far she’s come in her life, yet knows she will only stop when she’s dead.
This is what dismantling a house looks like.
It is eyes watering at the amount of dust that comes up in clouds around you, sneezing while you’re walking into a demented heaven where all that’s there is stuff. Boxes and boxes of earthly goods are surrounding you, and bags of donations lay out in front of you like tombstones.
The dead live amongst here, the people you used to know.
It’s also the frenzy of the living who are still holding the items, lifting beautiful bowls and crystal, trying on clothing that you remember your mother once wore when it got cold. Going through and trying to claim everything in the tiniest little crevices, from wall hangings to See’s candy gift certificates.
It is pulling an antique yellowed veil from your mother’s closet and not knowing who it belongs to, and knowing probably the only person who can explain it is dead. Then it’s having people insist that you keep it for your own wedding, even though you’re not getting married yet; hopes for the future that you just can’t see at this given moment. You want to get married again, but are not sure if it will actually happen for you. Yet you are being given a veil to wear “just in case.”
It’s swimming through the piles of stuff, and when you say you like something, everyone insists you take it with you. And then you remember you have a tiny guesthouse, and wonder where you’re going to put all of the items you like when there’s barely room for you.
It’s starting a bonfire with the love letters and photos of your ex, laughing and dancing around it with your cousin and sister, bonding over how far you’ve come. It’s also pulling your wedding album, solo in the dark, and finding a container of stickers in your mother’s desk and pasting them all over your ex and his family’s faces (all except for his cousin. You liked her).
It’s the combinations of memories, from both the people who are here and those that are gone. Flimsy paper letters indicating truths about our mortal existences — Turkish immigration papers from my great-grandmother, the death of my great uncle in war, my grandfather longing for my grandmother, a letter from my father after he felt my sister kick in my mother’s stomach for the first time.
Then there are the papers you pull with your name on them, writing in clinical detail what a problem child you were. How you could not communicate, could barely speak, was left screaming and angry until language therapy saved you. Seeing your mother write about how, as a four-year-old child, you went from nothing to her high hopes of you going to some great university one day.
Every school assignment, every attempt at writing and telling stories had been saved, and many of them were thrown in the trash because there is no room to take every little scribble with you. And as others try to hold on to every little piece, you wonder how callous you have become in casting off.
And you think you’ve made progress as you indicate all the crystal bowls and various entertaining platters that are going to be sold off, watching as the stakes are raised again and again. More boxes — of books, kitchen wares, of all the things you thought you’d use again but never did. Tossing off what time has made meaningless; high school yearbooks where you don’t talk to these people anymore and can barely remember them, kitschy things that seemed funny when you were younger, even mementos from friends who you will always love, but ended up breaking your heart in the end.
Hopes for the future, of having the life that your parents did, cast away like shadows in the darkness. Things you wish you could keep but know that there is no space anymore in your current existence. Feeling like you’re falling behind as the people around you, who love you, hold cups of coffee, razzing on your ex because he’s the easiest target at this moment.
Then you realize that you’re suffocating underneath all the items. The weight of the past is being collected in the tangible things, and you desperately want them all to go away. You want to disappear with them, because in that moment you feel like in the things you are one of them, worth very little under the mountain of time passed, left to linger in the graveyard of donations and sellable items worth merely pennies.
And you’re left asking: What kind of life have I lived?
The tears start to flow. My wailing starts softly. It gets louder, and I try to muffle into a pillow. I fail.
My phone text blares. It’s him, my sweet him. He’s so far away from me right now. I tell him I’m having a hard day and that I don’t want to burden him while he’s working; the truth is I’m so used to being independent that I’m terrified to let him in when I’m like this. I prefer to smile and laugh with him, as the happiness he makes me feel is indescribably infinite.
I go back to crying again, thinking of lying in bed with him as he holds me just right, his fingers across my face as he wipes away every tear individually when I would cry about missing my mother, as if counting each of them. And then telling me quietly that he’s not running away.
I still miss her. And I’m crying for her now — two days after Mother’s Day, because I put so much under the surface that I didn’t allow myself to feel at that very moment. As I have been doing during most of this process of dismantling a house.
That’s when everyone surrounds you. To hold you, to touch you and to tell you, “It’s time to stop.”
This is when we stop doing and start talking.
My oldest childhood friend is in my passenger’s seat, telling me that if she gets motion sickness she’s taking the wheel. We’re going to the beach because it makes me happy. I’m behind the wheel because, finally, I have control.
And he calls. He asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. He tells me to pace myself; box it now, look at it later. He can’t stay on the phone as my friend and I bicker, but he says he’s looking forward to meeting her, and for going to brunch for my dad’s birthday.
I hang up the phone. My friend looks at me. “He called to check in on you,” she said softly. It was strange coming from her, because she is usually so cynical. It was full of wonder and potential.
His words, his voice, the phone call weren’t tangible items, but it was all the perfect gift. It wasn’t an empty glass vase where a dozen delivered roses once resided, a letter trying to convince me of something to win my affections, or a gift that came in tangent with a wedding dress. It wasn’t anything I could hold in my hands.
Rather, it was a metaphorical brick in the foundation; one house was dismantling, another potentially being built. And later, I laid down and whisper the words out loud that I was so afraid to say to him directly.
“This is my family,” I say. “But he is home.”
It’s the tearing down and building up, the yin and yang of my existence. I’m standing on the edge of a knife, so scared that I’m going to fall off, dismantling a house while possibly finding a new home at the edge of my universe.
This is exactly what it looks like.
There’s a town just about an hour north of Los Angeles called Thousand Oaks, California. It is one of those sleeper, outside-Los Angeles towns where baby boomers settled with their children in the early 1990s when they didn’t want the stink of the San Fernando Valley on their skins. It was where schools had good reputations and houses were large and cheap, where suburban sprawl reigns supreme and tract houses caress the hillsides.
It’s one of those towns where, 25 years ago, there wasn’t much out there; mainly people with horse ranches, a library, schools and grocery stores. Bigger chain stores and city comforts were out of reach. If you wanted something specific, it meant loading into a car and a half an hour drive in almost any direction.
Thousand Oaks was a place where people ride around in giant pick-up trucks or white BMWs, either cowboys or desperately pretending to be, all while painting the town a bright shade of Republican red. The leading town entertainment was the winning high school football team on a Friday night under those fluorescent spotlights, followed by church with the entire town on Sunday under a huge light-up cross on the lawn.
The children of the people who made their homes out here were tiny little reflections of themselves. If you were any way different you were judged, and your only hope was to cast off your race. religion or sexual orientation to fit the status quo. If you were white and evangelical, like most of the town, you emphasized your whiteness, right down to parental-bought flashy cars, designer clothes and screaming for fancy coffees.
There was a desperate call to win, to succeed. College was the end all and be all of this world, and your extra-cirriculars were everything. Parents slapped football helmets on boys in hopes of getting scholarships and girls fled the cheerleading squad when the dance team won a national championship. You wore show choir sequins and Vaseline on your teeth and let the Napoleonic choir teacher scream and throw his tantrums; bad behavior was excused if you brought home trophies.
This was not the town I was born in; I was actually born in Los Angeles. But from the age of 10, we lived in the house off of La Granada Drive in Thousand Oaks.
It was the town where I was raised in. And I hated it.
Many of the kids grew up together, played at each others’ houses. I was the awkward transplant with liberal, socially conscientious parents — an entertainment techie father and a Holocaust historian mother. We were Jewish and very proudly so, from a family made up of more various people than a cheerleader’s sweet sixteen. My parents worked in the city, came from city families who still lived there, had city attitudes, were city people. There wasn’t room for us in Thousand Oaks.
The teachers never understood me. From a young age I was loud and outspoken. I refused to back down from my beliefs, standing up to my teachers and wondering why their opinion meant more simply because they were older. Passion, smarts, conviction and drive: These were the things that made me.
They didn’t make friends, though. I was that very strange, very tall, loud girl who brought a giant presence to every room. I was teased and made fun of regularly, to the point of crying right in the middle of class when the teacher didn’t do anything to protect me. Don’t get me wrong — there were people who I liked and I know liked me too. But it wasn’t like we were hanging out at each others’ houses. We just were there, acknowledging each other but never really reaching over.
Thousand Oaks was the place of lonely days, where I walked home as a latchkey kid and was left unattended. It was where I felt ugly for being so different and stole makeup from the local drugstore to try to feel beautiful. It was where I cried to Alanis Morissette, watched Sailor Moon in hopes I had a greater purpose in life, and put on red lipstick and my mom’s vintage dresses hoping I would become Gwen Stefani one day.
It was the place of cold evenings where my teenage self packed backpacks and desperately tried to run away, where I hoped I would die to relieve the pain of being lonely. It was where the doctors would cram pills down my throat to control me and make sure I was quiet. I would watch as I lost control over my own body, and when I tried to object they would shrug. It was the place of rejections and no’s, the place where I felt invisible, told to fit in a box when I knew I was better than that.
As a result, all my life there was one goal: Get the hell out of Thousand Oaks.
Most of my family disagreed, particularly my mother. She loved her little castle on top of the hill, all the knick-knacks and designs she made for her house. And one of her biggest frustrations with me was always why I wanted to leave.
In that small town, she had everything she had always wanted. She had her perfect large house with all her comforts, from sewing machines to a large backyard. She had the dogs and the fruit trees in the backyard. The family was far enough away so that they weren’t banging on our doors, but close enough so they could come every other weekend. It was the place she lived. It was the place she died.
But it was quiet. Eerily quiet. And it was in that silence where my anger grew.
By 21, I was gone, headed off to Orange County with a packed Toyota Camry. I fell in love with the beaches and the laid-back college vibe of my new university, and my anger turned to happiness. There were so many friends and fun nights that graduation seemed like a nightmare. After finding a place where I was finally allowed to be myself, thrive and not be alone, I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I would never return to that place where my loneliness consumed me — even marry an abusive man.
One of the things that kept me married was Thousand Oaks; the idea of returning was unbearable. It felt like quicksand; I hated everything about that place. My focus was on the future. My focus was forward.
But even in Orange County, something was unsettling to me, like my feet were getting stuck. There was no rush of culture or whimsy for me, no joy in the pursuit of having a perfect life and family. It was my parents’ dream, my friends’ dream, everyone else’s dream. Not mine.
So I returned to Thousand Oaks.
It had changed in all those years. All the creature comforts of city life were now there, from Costco to Target. Although there were more housing developments, my parents’ house was still on wistful La Granada Drive, where they would complain about kids drinking near the cul-de-sac and street paving with the city council. It was still scrubbed clean, pristine and shiny. And I still hated it.
A year later, I moved into Los Angeles. It was my birthplace, and after a while I wondered if it was more of my hometown than Thousand Oaks. Walking along gum-encrusted sidewalks carrying grocery bags and sipping coffee along Abbott Kinney felt organic, more than than pick-up trucks and perfect lawns. Whenever I would see the downtown skyline, I would take a deep breath and feel my heart thud proudly through my chest, This was my heart. Thousand Oaks was my hometown, but Los Angeles was actually home.
The people who became my friends were also escapees to Los Angeles — from Dallas, Orlando, New Jersey, Arizona, Chicago or anywhere in between. We found home in each other. They were my friends and family, while the people I went to high school with were a mystery.
As the years went on, people added me on social media. Many were married with kids. Some were like me, single with drive. Some I like much, much better than others, and hope we will see each other and share a coffee or cocktail, and really get to know each other as adults.
I think about all of them — the jocks, the cheerleaders, the jazz hands and the stoners — as I drive back to Thousand Oaks. I think of reading my Facebook the other day, when I had to read about the death of a friend of mine from junior high.
His name was Tony. He sat next to me in junior high science class, and we were friendly with each other. He eventually became a football player, playing under those Friday night lights for the winning team. We were barely friends, but his kindness never stopped.
A friend of mine pulled a prank on him because his friends were so awful to me. She called him and asked him about me. He never said a bad word, although his friends would. I was on the other line, muted, listening intently. It made me feel less alone.
Even though I didn’t how how he died, I thought about articles I read about former football players and chronic brain injuries; how they commit suicide, kill people, lose their minds due to the knocks they took. Wondering if his life had been cut short in part because of our existence in this town.
I arrive at the house on La Granada Drive, with the yellow roses in full bloom. This town has changed in 25 years. The children who grew up on these streets had all moved away to create their own destinies elsewhere, and the housing prices grew so high that very few of them could return.
This house was where I grew to my 5’11 height and ate avocados and lemons from our trees. Where I learned to drive and wrote my short stories. Where I put on my first makeup looks and wore my high school cap and gown. Where the pool parties commenced and my father made his famous hickory smoked Thanksgiving turkey. Where my mother walked and our German shepherd Lucy followed.
And the place where, this summer, my father will leave. Thousand Oaks, the town that I grew up in, will transform from home base to simply a memory.
All my life I always wanted to leave, run away and never return. But sitting in the years of memories, dismantling a house, I don’t know how to feel about it. I had grown and changed. I didn’t live in the past, especially this past that I choose to forget. But the past wasn’t done with me yet.
As I drove into the city, knowing that one day soon I would drive away from Thousand Oaks forever, I really thought about this place: the trees growing wild on the hillsides and the lack of streetlights that allow you to see the stars every night. The coyotes howling at the sound of sirens and the roadrunners dashing alongside them. The rabbits run through the canyons and the hawks circle in the sky, and people still ride their horses up and down the street.
There will be a new child to call this place home. A new family trying to do the best they can. And I pray that this place won’t be as hard on them as it has been on me.
And as they put together their new home, I march forward in mine, scared yet determined, fearless despite the anxieties. Focus on the future, let go of the past, no matter how hard it tries to shake you.
This is the way my time in Thousand Oaks will end.
Hey Sean Spicer. I am here to tell you something important about the Holocaust: You don’t know shit about it.
It’s not like me to be vulgar in my writing. I’m usually one who likes to remain poetic and intelligent whenever I create these types of things. But the truth is that you don’t know anything about the Shoah. You don’t know shit.
The truth is not many people do. I don’t care how many times you have heard Holocaust stories, been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or even Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. You don’t know shit about it, and that’s the truth.
You might know the fact that six million Jews were sent to their deaths (although apparently your boss doesn’t). They weren’t the only ones. There were communists, gypsies, homosexuals and political rivals, people with disabilities and people of color. This is the short list. In total, the Nazis sentenced 11 million to death for being themselves.
You probably know about the concentration camps, although apparently you forgot about the gas chambers and their Zyklon B. You don’t know about the people forced to lie on the ground and have Nazi officers ride horses across them, and whoever lived were the lucky ones. You don’t know about the people who would be forced to dig their own graves and then be shot into them. How people would sometimes come to watch, as if they were going to the movies.
You don’t know shit.
You don’t know the people who would do anything to escape. They hid diamonds underneath their skin so the Nazis couldn’t confiscate them, using them to buy passage through Europe to safer places. They were the people who would do anything for freedom, who escaped on boats to places where their lives wouldn’t be taken. And sometimes, when on those vessels, were turned away from different governments and sent back to the slaughter.
You don’t know the people who risked their lives to save people. Priests who took in hundreds of children and let them grow up safe in their care. There were the men who forged documents in order to give people the safe passage to other countries. There were the women who hid families under floorboards, in attics, far away from the prying eyes of the Nazis. They risked their lives. You don’t know them.
You do know many of the neighbors of the ones who were taken. They turned their heads, hoping to save their own skins, not realizing that there were certain things in this world worth dying for. You know them because they are you, Mr. Spicer. They are your boss, his friends and those who kowtow to his whims. You are them now, in this moment.
They were you when you argued for banning people because of their faith. They were you when you dismissed the press simply because they disagreed with you and dissented. They were you when you have defended the actions of your boss, and affirmed his beliefs no matter how misguided they were.
Don’t believe me? If I asked you, at this moment, to take in a Muslim man, woman or child under pain of death at the hands, you’d probably shake your head and say absolutely not. You couldn’t risk that. Just proves my point: You don’t know shit.
You are not the one who understands the dangers of history repeating itself. Rather, you are the one trying to use it to your advantage, clean up the parts you don’t like and then play it for your puppeteering and spin doctoring.
You don’t know shit about it. You don’t know shit about the Holocaust.
I believe in the kindness of people, in the goodness of the world despite its evils. I’d like to believe we are better than another Holocaust. But with one hand you would take the evils of the past and with the other create the same exact circumstances that led to the past’s events.
And for me, and my future children and friends’ children, I will say the words that echo in my heart like a rhythmic song: Never again. And when I say those words, I say them for all mankind, no matter color, creed or anything in between; not just for those who I deem worthy at any given moment.
The question is whether or not the Holocaust happened; fortunate for those of us who need to constantly prove the history to Holocaust deniers (and possibly you too), the Nazis were stellar record keepers who kept meticulous entries of all their atrocities. The question is how do we conduct our lives based on this information. In a world where anger and finger-pointing run rampant, were hatred is easier than love and openness, how do we face the future?
Mr. Spicer, it’s time to educate yourself. You need to know more than just the basic facts of the Holocaust. You need to know more than the six million dead Jews.
You need to know the thousands scarred, the subtle history leading to the atrocities of war that we are mirroring on a day-to-day basis. You need to know about the boats turned away and the people who were sent back to the slaughter because people were too busy being scared rather than loving.
You need to know that that six million isn’t just a number; it’s human lives, people who had families and who loved and were loved. Six million souls, six million lights extinguished from the world and countless generations of humans who could change the world for the better, but perished at the hands of ignorance and fear.
Only then can you say, “Never again.”
Until then, you don’t know shit. You don’t know, you can’t know. And add your name to the list of the guilty, who sacrificed millions of lives for the easy way out.
We all want things to be perfect.
At least I do, anyway. It’s one of the hazards of having been an editor for so long. You will find faults in everything — wonder why people can’t use their grammar correctly, how that tree sap found its way on your perfectly cleaned car window, how there can be one minute of gray to spoil the row of beautiful, sunny California days.
This nitpicking may be weird coming from someone who has a hard time cleaning. But sometimes you yearn for things to be the way you want them. Otherwise, you just can’t help but to wonder.
Over the course of my life, I have angrily stared at my split ends, sprinkled various herbs into dishes for the best flavors until I was satisfied and spent hours trying to take the perfect selfie, then yelling at myself because my eyes are never the same size. I worry when people post their pictures of me on my Facebook — do I look fat? Why do my teeth stick out like a chipmunk? My hair looks limp. Other girls are prettier than me; I’ve seen their Instagrams.
And beyond that striving for the perfection of our physical appearances, there’s also the other things that hint that something isn’t right under the surface; the things you desperately don’t want other people to notice. There is a worry in me too about all of them:
Are you single? If you are, what’s wrong with you? If you’re in a relationship, why isn’t he marrying you? Or maybe he’s not good enough for you if he’s this or that? If you’re married, why don’t you have kids? If you do have kids, why aren’t they X, Y or Z?
Where do you work? Who do you work for? How long have you been there? If you haven’t been there for that long, there must be something wrong with you. If you’ve been there for too long, you have no ambition.
People like me want to be perfect. We strive for the best. We want to win, to have people admire and look up to us.
We are given ladders to climb that have no real top, that aren’t what they seem because we determine the top of them when in truth the outer ends of the universe is the limit. Or if and when we reach the “top,” we look down from the top of the clouds and don’t see what we missed in order to climb up here. And to go back down means you could potentially fall, and hit the ground harder than when you were first there.
Yet we keep reaching for perfection. Is it because we’re told to or because we’ll never be satisfied if we don’t? I can’t tell you.
I thought I knew perfect. If you asked me before, I could tell you what perfect looked like, or at least my version of it. There was a vision in my head, and I felt the desperate need to go there in all aspects of my life — job, dating, you name it.
Several weeks ago I walked into a dive bar off of Ventura Boulevard. I sat at the bar and waited. I even told my friend on the phone, “I don’t expect anything much from this. Might as well.”
About an hour and a half later I was sitting on a couch in the bar, right in the middle of a popcorn war, laughing all the way as I tossed popcorn playfully into his graying hair. A week later I was drinking wine with him in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, looking up at the stars for hours and listening to “Something” by the Beatles play on the car radio. And another week passes and we’re whispering, which makes his voice sound like husky honey, then giggling softly like sneaky teenagers as we’re trying to fix a closet door and his dog is licking my face.
The normal exchange of stories began. Every day there was a conversation. There would always be time for a text. There were innuendo messages as much as the encouragement and advice, as well as debates about movies and music. I would be my normal sassy self and he would lap it up. We shared our beliefs of the world. He found my social consciousness sexy and loved how close I am to my dad.
I would stand up for myself, and he would hear me out, but check me in my fears and anxieties. He not only calmed me, but it made me realize, “Oh crap, this guy has my number, and we haven’t even known each other that long.” It wasn’t a bad thing; rather, it reminded me distinctly of my friendship with my best friend of 14 years. It made me feel more like myself.
That night of the broken closet door, I laid on the bed and looked at him. I could feel my face turn into a goofy smile, feeling incredibly comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t feel anything weird about the way he was touching me, unlike some of the other guys I had been with. He played with my hands as our fingers weaved them this way and that. And yet somewhere in my mind, I thought to myself, “This is it? After all this time and the countless number of strangers, this is the guy?”
He didn’t know a lot about grammar — his texts were riddled with typos, which is usually my number one dating pet peeve. He’s a big dude, which was strange for me; I’ve always been taller, bigger, whatever. He’s an outdoorsy type, loves to go fishing, camping, hiking. He gardens, which I am completely clueless about. He reads, but not as much as I do. He grew up in a completely different culture than I did. His work schedule is erratic.
Yet I looked into his half closed brownish hazel eyes as his slight smile matched mine, and realized that I would be absolutely crazy to let him go.
Perfect is often what the world tells us, not ladders of ascension but boxed prisons of the mind. It’s up to us to shake the chains that bind us and let go. Perfect is the striving for the future when you need to count the present too. And sometimes it’s desperately hard to count.
Will it last? I definitely don’t know the future. But I look forward to it: Arms wrapped around me while gardening, more laughter as the dogs lick my face, maybe even another popcorn war and plenty more music. And that, for me, is perfect.
We all come to Los Angeles with a dream.
It’s cliché to say because the idea of it is ingrained in the American psyche: Hometown hero boys who come off of Greyhound buses in Hollywood with hope in their hearts, and pretty girls who were big names in small towns now praying to become stars on a sidewalk. It’s not only America; people all over the world have joined in that chorus, crossing borders to arrive on our shores.
They come to be a part of the dream, the dream that a lot of us have: To make it, whatever that “it” may be. It could be stardom, it could be a new life in a new country, it could be any number of things. It really doesn’t matter what that “it” is exactly. It’s different for everyone.
After all, in Los Angeles, we are the fools who dream.
That’s the main line in the song “Audition” from La La Land, and with good reason: Because to the rest of the world, we are fools. Ask anyone in New York, San Francisco, almost any resident of another big city, and there is usually a roll of the eyes about us. “The people there are so…” and then you fill in the blank with whatever you like. They don’t know we are so much more than that. After all, in order to survive this city we had to learn to stop caring what people thought of us a long time ago; those who do usually end up on the Greyhounds back home.
We don’t listen to them, because they don’t know the people who live here. We are the immigrants and the fresh-eyed optimists, coming from all over the world with all different backgrounds and shades of skin. We are the freaks and the disenfranchised, trying to escape our pasts. We are the strange ones who couldn’t settle for ordinary life, couldn’t bow our heads in submission to those who thought they knew better.
You know those people. They are the ones who tell us to hang up hopes along with our childhood dreams, which were cute when we were of smaller stature. It’s time to tie nooses around our necks to head to the office or strap a child to our bodies. Their chorus is, “Grow up!”
Apparently, wanting our lives to be better than the status quo was for children. So we come here to Los Angeles, where the clothes were casual and there was still room to breathe — even in the freeway traffic jams and smog.
We are here to pursue. Here, where you sit on the side of Mulholland Drive, with the stars of the city sprawled at your feet. Here, where the Pacific Ocean meets the sand and summer seems to linger eternally. Here, where the sizzle and the smell of bacon wrapped hotdogs from street vendors trying to make a buck fill the night air and we line up at the taco trucks to share a laugh and a bite. Here, where we come to thrive in the sunshine and pound our laptop keys in the coffee shops.
Our dreams are all different and yet the same. Because here is home. It is what we have created, all of us, together as residents of this city.
No matter where I’m coming from, when that downtown skyline hits my eyes, I know I’m safe here. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, even when I used to live somewhere else. No matter what you change in your life, you can’t change where you came from.
In a weird way, I came back home all those years ago to make it. My make it, though, wasn’t for fame. It was for freedom. To have it, it meant the anonymity to grieve, followed by the courage to become. Only a bustling city, full to the brim of fools and dreamers, can you get something like that.
Somewhere in the suburbia where I fled, I’m sure there are men and women who once knew me and call me a fool. Perhaps I am. Perhaps I always was. There was a rebellious core in me back then that was fighting against the suburban box, full of chain restaurants, unnaturally clean sidewalks and emerald-colored laws, perfectly cut.
Maybe it was because I was meant for red Chucks and graphic t-shirts, not billowing housewife skirts and ballerina flats. Maybe it was because of my discomfort in McMansions and gravitation towards the Spanish style architecture of my grandparents’ home. Maybe I saw myself more in the people who came here trying with hopeful eyes rather than the ones who settled in for the as-is, lofty in dismissing the dirty city.
In Los Angeles we are not above it. We live in the grit, thrive in it. That is why this city fights so hard, from the street corners all the way up to city hall. This is a difficult city to be in, we know this. But we don’t give up. We will never give up.
We sling espresso shots and shots of tequila across bars, knock on your doors to deliver food, drive Lyfts, take out trash, wash dishes and serve food to demanding patrons. Almost every person in this city has a story about the time they put in for their dream, and we wear those days like badges of honor.
And even when we do make it, in that great “it” that lies somewhere in our sunshine filled universe, there is no pause. We work the long hours, writing checks for our bills and driving to get to wherever we’re going. And yet at the end of it all, we’re still typing away on our pilots, singing on stage, cooking bright foods, opening shops, telling stories and jokes to waiting audiences.
We don’t stop. We will never stop. Because we are the fools who dream.
You can’t extinguish that with 10,000 realities and hundreds of neckties. You won’t break us by dismissing us. We, from the immigrants to the faces on a Greyhound bus, are the Angelenos who make this place what it is. Together, we are united in something bigger than ourselves.
There is a song in all of us, each individual heart, and we sing it proudly and as loud as our voices can go, to the point where the world begs to see it. And with a light of the screen, a voice in our ears, the note of a song, the dream comes alive again. And it is the fools who make it.
There are days where no matter where you turn the road is blocked and you can’t make it through. These are the days where you’re at the lowest, and you’re wondering if it’s worth it, if you’re worth it.
That day for me was Monday.
Sitting in my parked Honda in Griffith Park, I looked out the window at the beautiful foliage, the standard California warm brown combined with the emerging green from the rains that decided to grace the Southland. I was parked near the Greek Theatre, just below the observatory, my favorite place in all of Los Angeles; the place I couldn’t get to because the road was blocked for the holiday.
The road was blocked. This sounded too familiar.
It had been about five hours since I lost my job; the one that I thought was it. They told me when I was brought on board that people stayed, reassuring me in a calm voice that this was permanent. They were growing. This was good.
They had been talking about eliminating several of our television magazine programs on Thursday. On Sunday I updated my LinkedIn profile. On Monday they let me go, claiming “convergence.” I was still getting letters of congratulations on my new position as I was sitting in the park.
When I got upset upon my termination, saying how I let everyone down, my boss didn’t understand. She had been with the company for five years; the last time I held a full-time job with benefits for more than one year was 2009, just as the recession took hold. This job didn’t even offer health insurance and was a drastic pay cut for me, but I took it in hopes of getting closer to working in the field I wanted, of video and television.
With everything they told me previously, this was supposed to be the one for me. I would stay there for a long time. But the road was blocked.
Almost every job boiled down to money: Full-time positions would hire me and then in turn realize they didn’t have enough money to sustain my employment. Contracts liked me, but not enough to pay off the recruiter to buy me out of it. Positions were eliminated and management shifted. And yes, on one or two occasions it was my doing; I will not pretend that I am blameless. But no matter the circumstances, when you’re tossed out like yesterday’s trash, you begin to believe that you are.
Over the years, I have constantly looked for full-time work but was forced into limited contracts. There were whispers of “overqualified” and suspicions about my work history’s lack of long-term positions. My anxiety over desperately needing a job forced me to bungle almost every job interview I went on. And when I was able to get a job, I couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone I worked with, because deep down I knew it wouldn’t last. It never did.
In the meantime, my friends as human resources consultants told me I should be making $70K while I had never been able to top $50K. I usually was forced to take the first job that was offered to me because I needed money, no matter if the work environment was a good fit or not. The idea of pursuing the dream career was put on the backburner in favor of survival, because monetarily I was on my own.
Eventually enough was enough, and with the help of my father I decided to begin coursework at UCLA in business and management in entertainment. Three days after I registered, I was offered this job, which would put me closer to the career that I had always wanted. Finally, my life was coming together. My father was so proud of me. And now, several months later sitting in Griffith Park, it was coming undone.
The days blurred together in tears, phone calls and Facebook messages. I loved all my friends and how they reached out to me, but for every one of them who called I wondered if there were ten more who were whispering and asking what the hell was wrong with that girl who couldn’t hold a job to save her life — mainly because that was the overwhelming voice that was running through my head. I recalled how, several months previous to this, my therapist said that my inability to hold a job was a sign that I was bipolar and needed a psych evaluation immediately.
(However, when the doctor and I went through the results several months later and he told me I wasn’t, the first thing out of his mouth after that statement was, “I hope you fired your therapist.”)
Despite the people surrounding me, my desperation grew bigger. No matter how much my friends said they loved me and my father expressed his support, it was me who faced the future with nothing but a black blazer and professional dresses buried in the back of my closet. It would be me who was going to be rewriting my resume, sending out cover letters and walking into job interviews, praying with every day that passed after it that I wouldn’t get another rejection letter. The job hunt grind was back, and the idea of it just broke me. I wasn’t ready to do this again. Not now, not so soon.
In my mind, the road was blocked, just like that road to the Griffith Observatory. I was blocked from the place where I wanted to be, that beautiful pristine palace on the hill with green manicured lawns and a breathtaking view of the city, where at night the buildings would become towers of stars and my soul would shine along with them. My happiest place, and the minute I thought I was there, that I had finally made it after years of struggling, it was snatched away just as fast.
What could I tell the world? What could I say when I thought my life was finally coming together, with the hopes of now finding a romantic partner to complete the trifecta of work, home and love? It was gone just as fast. All I had left were my classes.
The day before, I had stood in Agua Dulce, recording a professional introduction at a liquor store. It was the place where I interviewed the directors of the movie Little Miss Sunshine on a crappy pay phone while serving as a newspaper reporter in Santa Clarita. The corner was filled with the noise of whizzing cars and bright blue skies, but I was excited to share my story with my class.
My world felt darker now than that girl, who was talking excitedly about editing video for her job working at an Israeli television station and scheduling programming online. Now there was no job, and the cute introduction that I had recorded with my friend Gary was not real anymore. It hurt even more to try to upload it to the website, as the file wasn’t transferring over and I only had a few hours left to turn it in. I was frustrated and could feel the tears rushing to my eyes again.
It was then that I remembered sitting in the park again, the silence setting in when my friend Jana called me. My eyes wandered towards the golden light of the setting sun caressing the brown leaves as she gave her strong, bold encouragement that seemed to pierce me through the fog.
“You are a dangerous combo, my dear,” she said. “There are so many people who are creative but not intelligent, and there are people who are intelligent who don’t have a lick of creativity. You have both in spades. So I don’t want to see any tears on those cheeks. You’re worth more than that.”
It made me shake my head. Crying wasn’t going to get me there any faster; she reminded me of that. It was time to think fast, think quickly; what are you going to do now that the road is blocked?
In my case, it was 10 pm, and I changed from my pajamas into a long sleeved black top. Fishing through my makeup bag, I pulled out a tube of bright red lipstick, my power color of so many years, and put it across my lips.
Yes, here I am. No job is going to change that; no career can take away my identity. And I hit record on my webcam and began to talk about losing my job. And as I talked, I felt like I was pulling the knife out of my back.
“Things don’t always go the way you plan,” I said to the camera. “Productions never go according to plan either, and you need someone to roll with the punches, to make things work.” If there’s anything I had to do in my life, it was that. And that’s why I was meant to do what I was doing, to take the path towards this career, no matter how many roads got blocked in the process.
As I uploaded the video and sighed, I laid back on my bed and looked up at the ceiling, thinking of the observatory and the city of stars, this place that I called home. The road was blocked for now, but if I have learned anything, that’s usually not a forever thing. After all, there was more than one way up to the top of the mountain.