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.
When we think of fairytales, we see Disney dance before our eyes like leaves in the wind. We think of clean and shiny, and of those words that end the tale: “And they all lived happily ever after.”
We forget the beginning and the middle of those stories — where Cinderella is in rags or Snow White being sent into the woods to be killed; details glossed over like they don’t matter to the story. But they are a huge part of the tales that begin with, “Once upon a time.” In fact, they are part of why we tell them again and again.
My story five years ago began with those words, because once upon a time, I was a fallen angel who crashed hard to earth.
When people think of fallen angels, they think of descending from heaven, when in truth I came from an unusual purgatory. It was pristine and clean; the better to hide the cracks under the surface. It was the place where you had dreams and illusions of what it was, but then you woke up to find that those dreams were your protection against what was actually there — waking in the middle of the night in cold sweats, my walking on eggshells and forced panic attacks, his short fuse, complete with banging on the walls and the high pitched screaming echoing in my ears.
There was only one option for survival, which was to fall away in a blur of colors — white walls and doors with silver handles, black coat against a cold January night, a red duffel bag with orange fluorescent lights and a green prayer book. And before I crashed on the slopes of the dry brown hills of this place, I let a prayer escape from my lips.
When angels fall, where do they go? When they crash to earth and are abandoned by those they thought loved them, where do they make their new home?
Luckily for me, there is a City of Angels. It is full of dreamers and drifters, of dirt and grit that coexist alongside sunlight and glimmering gemstones. It is packed with people constantly talking and honking their horns, charging through with coffee cups and their latest projects. Where I used to live, they called it La La Land. It was known as unreasonable, impractical, awful, the other, the fear — all this despite the fact it was my birthplace. And it was the place that would give me the anonymity to grieve.
I had returned to be born again, naked and crying to the universe. Back in the city that was once home, I was crawling on the floor in the ashes, the agony of what I lost. My soul was shaking in agony, trying desperately to learn to walk again as a lone entity when accustomed to running with a weight tapped on my back. All the while, I was lying in strange dark rooms, and all I could ask was, “Who am I? Where did I go?”
One night, another cold night, I met an older gentleman with a guitar. For an hour and a half, he sang holy prayers and told stories of Jewish sages and wisdom beyond compare. His melodies were beautiful and his words inspiring. But then he sang a prayer in Hebrew. “Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips…”
These words, this melody were already a part of me; I used to sing it. I first heard it in a coffee shop over the loudspeaker, and it merged into my being. Music was the only place where safety lived in my past and my happiness dwelled. It defused bombs and replaced fear with laughter and dance. And in the darkness, where I fell to earth, this song was a light waiting for me.
I rushed to the man afterwards. “How do you know that song?” I asked him.
He looked at me, shocked. “I wrote it,” he replied.
It was a flicker of a phrase, but one of the many bricks in the foundation. It told me that I could create a new life in this strange place that was now my home. A door had opened, and there laid out before me was a narrow bridge for me to cross over into a different world. Strapped to my back was the darkness and the baggage that came with the past, the things which I couldn’t leave behind just yet. But as a childhood song taught me about those bridges: “The most important part is not to be afraid.”
When I started, I began crossing that bridge as a lonely soul. People whizzed by my ears, as if everything was perfect and nothing could catch them. My inadequacy threatened to take over. Yet even when things got dark, there was a whisper, both inside my head and outside of it: “Keep going. I promise it will be worth it.”
It wasn’t long before I met people on the path and they began to walk with me. When the sun shone, they taught me to glow alongside it. When world got colder, they kept me warm. And when the road narrowed and the fear threatened to take over, they kept me from falling over the edge.
Others along my path were not so lucky. Some flung themselves off the bridge; others fell away as their days were numbered. I thought I could catch them, but even though I was a fallen angel I had no wings to fly far enough so they could stay in my grasp. All I had were the memories they left me with, and the long path ahead. In being on the bridge, there were sacrifices to make.
There were little stumbles and celebrations along the way. There was singing and cheering under full moons and tears standing in food pantry lines with an empty belly. There were phone calls, stolen kisses and warm embraces. They resided alongside the heartbreaks and death, and the moments in between where you’re laughing and crying all at once. They all live on the bridge, waiting for you to discover them and then fall away from your hands, but not how they felt emotionally as they were coursing through your veins.
Time passes, and as we move along there comes a moment where you realize the bridge has gotten wider. The smile grows broader on your face and sleep gets a little easier. Your laughter flows out of you lightly, and there comes a breath where you look up at the blue sky, and you’re able to easily say, “Okay. I’m okay.”
Recently, my fairytale has progressed to the point where people have been seeking the end. Where was the prince that was supposed to sweep me away and take me to his kingdom? Where does the happily ever after come from?
This was a question that was brought up over Christmas Eve. After whiskey and wine, my friend and I stared at each other, blissfully happy to be in each other’s company after many months apart. I kept lamenting that I should go to one of the many Jewish singles parties pulsating through the city. My weariness of the search was catching up with me, but several people in my life seemed to be begging me to find someone; they didn’t want me to be alone.
“I don’t get the push,” he said to me. “You have so many amazing friends, and family who loves you. You have a great new job, you live in a place that you love. You’re smart and funny, an amazing writer and have so much going for you. So what if you don’t have a man? That doesn’t make you who you are. A man shouldn’t define your worth.”
As the Chanukah lights flickered, I realized that this is why I fell to earth in the first place: Because I knew that there was more to life than what had happened. That being an angel, or someone’s idea of one, isn’t worth sacrificing yourself for. Sometimes you have to come down to earth to realize that.
As I headed home later that night, I took a deep breath and soaked in the lights. Here I was, home again in the City of Angels; a place that gave me the anonymity to grieve, but when it came time also gave me the brilliance to shine on. It is where brown hills turn green after the rain and sky somehow becomes bluer, where glasses are raised high and the laughter is louder, where dreamers find their sanctuaries and their compatriots. It doesn’t come without sacrifices, but there was no happiness like the one I was experiencing in this moment, right now.
There was no prince, but I had a kingdom all my own; it was in a place where fallen angels can hit the ground, get up and walk the path to becoming a queen. And this fairytale has only just begun.
Hello there, wherever you hail from. I am your resident weirdo and giant nerd Reina, and I want to be your friend.
There is no joke here, no punchline proclaiming various stereotypes that comedians might use to appear edgy. I am serious in my offer, from one person of G-d to another. Any laughter from this piece is accidental, although the goal here is to make you smile a bit.
Let me tell you a little bit about me first. I’m a freelance writer/editor and live in Los Angeles. I love all things nerdy, from Harry Potter to Star Wars and Star Trek, Buffy and Game of Thrones, as well as watching John Oliver and other funny political shows with my dad. We lost my mom in April and my sister lives far away, and so any time I can spend with him is great. And not only does he love nerdy things, but he’s very, very funny. I often post our conversations on Facebook, and it makes so many people laugh.
My cooking skills are on point, from vegan and gluten-free dishes to pure carnivore delights. That being said, I don’t cook with bacon or shellfish — I was kosher for seven years, and although I eat them when I go out now it still doesn’t feel right to cook with them. Yes, I am Jewish. No, this doesn’t stop me from wanting to be your friend.
I’m single, although ironically as a Jew in dating I have sometimes gotten along more with Muslim guys than even my own people. Yet despite a lack in relationship, I have a great group of friends who love watching movies, eating, Halloween, playing trivia, singing at the moon, going to spas and laughing together on a regular basis. We are like a little family, and I am sure they would love to include you.
The truth is that I was always a strange duck, even in my own Jewish community. I’m Jewish, but my mother’s family was from Turkey. For hundreds of years, since the Jews were accepted as refugees from the Spanish inquisition in 1492, the Muslims and the Jews lived together in harmony there while the Ottomans ruled over them. It wasn’t always good (in fact, my great-grandparents fled Istanbul to America because it was rumored that great-grandpa Solomon tried to overthrow the sultan as a part of the Young Turks), but we had each other.
In college, my disgust for how the people in my Hillel treated Muslims on my campus was strong. How could they proclaim discrimination against themselves and yet discriminate against others? Wasn’t our battle theirs?
Around this same time, I met Rudy. She was petite, but her warmth matched my height. Her brown eyes were just as kind as her demeanor, and we would often walk around campus together talking about anything and everything, from the bigotry faced by the 909-area code to the constant demands of our mothers. Our friendship was surrounded by jokes, because she was an Egyptian Muslim and I’m Jewish. The joke was always, “Don’t mind them, they’re going to go solve the Peace Process together.”
It was through Rudy that I met her friends, who were from all different regions of the Middle East. We never talked politics, but drank tea together and talked about our grandmothers, how they bugged us about getting married and all the delicious foods they cooked; they were similar because my family was also from the region.
This was seen as a betrayal from my Jewish community on campus. I wrote an article for the campus paper about the radicalization of both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict on campus, and how moderates would be the only ones to solve the problems. My roommates called a house meeting to say how disappointed they were in me. A friend confronted my now-ex and said, “I hear your girlfriend is a Jew hater.” I could barely show my face in my own community. My Muslim friends rallied and hugged me tightly instead.
There are a million stories I could tell like this. I could talk about living in D.C. and meeting a girl in a hijab from Tennessee, who embraced me and told me growing up all her friends were Jewish too. Or about one of those friends from college that Rudy introduced me to, and running into him years later at an interfaith event when he told me I had changed his mind about Jews. But those are stories. What matters is right now.
Hate is coming for both your people and mine; no matter how many excuses my community makes, it is clear there is an anti-Semitic thread that weaves itself through the new administration as much as Islamophobia. While we were busy fighting with each other over the years about various issues, the hatred was coming at us from the outside. And now that it’s banging on our door, with threats of registries, removed hijabs and internment camps, we have decisions to make.
We can try to fight this battle alone, but the hatred is too strong and our individual communities too small against the growing tides. Members of our respective groups may try to site a conflict 7,000 miles away to divide us, but the truth is that it doesn’t stop the cancer growing here. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., who my father met and eventually took up his call: Hate cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. He understood that it was his duty as a man of G-d. And it is now mine.
As a Jew, this is as much my battle as it is yours. The portion of the Torah where Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael come together once again to bury him. This is despite Ishmael’s exile, and eventual future as the father of Islam. I have always believed that we would come together again; for the sake of our humanity, it is essential now.
So if they register you, I register too. If they send you to the camps, I will go alongside you. We share the same father to our faiths; it is my religious obligation to stand up for you. Together we build a barrier against the hatred that doesn’t divide people, but embraces. Jews have seen this before; one-third of Europe’s Jews were destroyed over 70 years ago in similar circumstances. We say, “Never again,” quite often. Now it’s time to put our words into action and let our marching feet stand in for our prayers.
This is why I want to be your friend; because I know the days are going to get darker. If I have learned anything since the election, I know that now is the time to take up our arms in love and build the bridges we need to fight the battles ahead. I’m not asking for undivided loyalty right when you meet me; just conversations over coffee and dinners are a great place to start.
So let’s go to the movies, sing songs together, play trivia or even just share a hug. We need to begin our bonds now, because as they get stronger we need to stand taller. And the only way to do that is to banish the darkness together as friends.
So as your resident weirdo and giant nerd girl, may I suggest starting this by dining on an impossible burger at Crossroads on Melrose together? Because if this world is so incredible that it can make a vegan burger taste like meat, then our friendships should be nothing compared to that.
There is a dress that is sprawled out over the stool in the corner of my bedroom. It is a beautiful, gauzy white dress with an intricate sky blue detailing in the middle. It is one of my favorite dresses. And on Tuesday I will wear it.
I bought it from the Fox Hills Mall just before I left to go to Israel three years ago. I wanted to wear white on my Shabbat in Jerusalem, as the Kabbalists believe that Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, right down to the white of our garments. This was the closest to white that I could find, but it didn’t matter that it wasn’t all white; to me, there was perfection in the blue.
It reminded me on the little blue flowers on the Corelle dishware in my mother’s cabinet, or the Ottoman style fabrics that would make me think of my great grandmother’s life in Turkey. Yet it was long and dramatic, a statement of sorts. Just like the girl who would be wearing it.
I remembered how proud I felt wandering around the Old City in it wearing a white cardigan over my shoulders. I will never forget walking through the courtyards just above the Kotel and how it flowed around my body; the magic in the fabric was unmistakable. I would wear it many times after that, including on Tu B’Av, where Jewish women would go into the fields in white dresses and dance, and from there the men would pick a wife.
I am an American citizen, the third generation of proud Jewish women living here. When my family came here in the early 1900s, the world did not know of Auschwitz. It could barely conceive of the birth of a Jewish state. We were Jews seeking a better life, where the boys wouldn’t be sent to war and my family could be safe.
I remember sitting in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen with its warm wood paneling, cooking the delightful delicacies passed on to her from the centuries of life in the diaspora, and how thrilled she would be when she got an envelope that said jury duty.
“I love it,” she would say in that honey husky tone that was uniquely hers, yearning for another letter to call her for service. She hoped to learn and to understand the American justice system, to be a part of something bigger than herself, as my grandfather blared C-SPAN in the other room. How she told me in secret how she missed working and going to school. She was born in 1918; two years before the women got the vote.
Her daughter and I got into many battles together. My mom was born in 1945, almost 25 years after women got the vote. Being a woman in this country for her meant not necessarily pursuing her dreams the way her brother was able to, because women had certain expectations put on them. But she believed, even as the medical bills piled up in and the hair fell out of her head due to chemo, that this was the best place in the world to live as Jews.
“How can you not love this country?” she would yell at me when I would write one of my questioning American blog pieces. And there, watching her die and my opportunities fade as I tried to take care of her, I wondered how she could.
Neither of these women lived to cast their ballots in this presidential election. Six months ago, my mother was wrapped in a white shawl and buried in the ground in a pine box, per our custom. And on Tuesday, I will be wearing white too.
It’s because when I was 18 I discovered a copy of The Vagina Monologues in my mother’s bathroom. She didn’t understand those words of Eve Ensler’s, but I did. It was my voice as a woman who grew up in a town where girls were supposed to be quiet and accept their treatment at the hands of men. I was already 5’11 and had a voice that boomed, and a brain that was just as smart as anyone else’s. Why should I be silent?
My words spoke better on paper than they did in my vocal tones, scary as they may be. Yet they were meant to capture the distaste of what the world told me to be as a woman, let alone as a person. How I was told my aptitude for the written word was no match for the power of math and science. Yet even though I understood and respected logic and reason, I understood the heart is just as powerful. Why should I be silent?
Standing alongside me were the women who I came to know throughout my life, beautiful and strong, yet somehow felt silenced in telling their stories. They couldn’t speak their truths, ranging from sexual assault to health issues and discrimination in the workplace, for fear of retaliation. I understood the fears, yet I knew that their stories were also mine and should never be shamed or scrutinized. Why should I stay silent?
When the suffragettes of the early 1900s donned their colors, of purple, gold and white, they saw that we could be so much more. We didn’t need to stay silent. We were voices in this place just as much as others. We were battered and bruised, with women who pursued the presidency such as Victoria Woodhull (actually the first female candidate for president, even before the suffragettes were successful in their quest for voting) described as Satan incarnate. And we got that right, and for 96 years we have exercised it accordingly.
Now, after 96 years there is a woman running for president on a national-level ticket. She believes in what I believe in, as does the Democratic Party platform, so I am casting my vote for her. There is far too much to lose in this race as women if we don’t; I sometimes wish the men in our lives would see that.
For over 24 years, she has faced opposition to who she is as a woman: One who doesn’t stay silent. Who is ambitious and determined, and has every word thrown at her in the book. So have we all who have decided to take a different path than our mothers, who decide not to hide behind what we should be and instead strive for what we could be. We are loud and strong. She wears white. And we must too.
So Tuesday, I will wear white when I go to cast my ballot. The blue pattern in my dress, I realized, is to represent my matriarchs who gave my faith to me. Our Jewish faith instructs us to wear our prayer shawls with a thread of blue, and I believe truly that we pray with our hearts as much as our words. And my vote is a holy act.
My mother and grandmother believed in and loved this country, probably a lot more than my questioning mind does. They would have loved to vote for a woman for president. I am but one, but as one I am the culmination of generations and years of love and proud heritage, and will vote in their spirit. That is what I will be on Tuesday, standing with the rippling fabric that once flowed with divinity in my homeland, and will flow around me again.
My mother would always say to me, “Remember who you are.” I am an American Jewish woman, one of many. And on Tuesday we will wear white.