i. road to nowhere

Doña Esthela.  You utter the name of this place or mention it in a hushed conversation and people respond as if you had referenced some kind of religious guru. How to find her?  Like with any guru, you look for the signs.  Nondescript little emblems pointing out the way to you.

Here you tend to follow dirt roads into what feels like nowhere.  Sometimes there are signs.  Sometimes there is a long stretch of rough dirt gouged into the semblance of a road and acres of desert chaparral, interrupted now and then by a rancho or a lot under construction. These country roads are bereft of traffic lights and asphalt.  No fire hydrants stand vigilant on corners.  Dirt, scrub brush, and the occasional vineyard inhabit the land.  Maybe a horse, some dogs (more than occasional) and goats interrupt the feeling of isolation. It is in this void, when the doubt is setting in and you really start to feel the heat of the sun and the hunger churning your belly, just then another sign comes.

La Cocina de Doña Esthela, sprawled at the intersection of two unnamed roads, looks nothing like a restaurant.  Three house-like structures occupy the rutted land, and the hand-painted letters on the side of the west-most building gives the only indication a business may exist here.  It is early on a Friday morning and the fire in the outdoor oven it still hurling smoke out of its top vent as fire spirals out of its mouth.

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Priming the oven at La Cocina de Doña Esthela

Aside from the delivery trucks (pickup trucks mind you, and one modest little flatbed) and the workers, we are the first one’s here.  Instead of going into the restaurant (perhaps, one may postulate, as a normal person would do), we walk towards the fire like two bewitched people.  La Doña is rushing past us, urging us to do as we please as she disappears.  Then we are alone in this place of fire under a giant awning decorated with the skulls of sheep, among other things.

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Smoke and bone

We spend time listening to the insistent whispers of the fire, but soon the animals call louder to us.  Horses flick their tails. Pigs squeal, both angrily and happily.  A lone goose waddles around, its neck stretched long and it glares at everything.  Then there are the chickens and goats and sheep and inattentive cows absently chewing.  We watch them all from the fence, feeling our bellies and a sense of calm from the simplicity before us.

The horses come to the fence to inspect us. One stays watchful behind the other, whose nose finds its way to our hands.  We stroke the rough dusty hair, the strength of the creature vibrant under our touch. This as cow bells jangle and the rooster sings.  He belts out for no other reason than he is programmed to, the need built into his DNA, as relentless as the need to eat.

….which we’ll get to later.

reasons to travel: discomfort, fear and failure

Crossing the border at Tecate is like finding a magical door at the back of a wardrobe.  When you step through, you are suddenly and instantly in another world.  A strip of corrugated metal with an opening wide enough to accommodate a single car separates one country from the other.  You slip from rural desolation into a little city of densely packed homes and businesses crowded together with a giant expanding brewery, which stands at the edge of things like some red giant.

I clutched the steering wheel and commanded Adam to navigate, because I had no idea where I was or how to get where I was going, and this not knowing terrified me.  It was my second ever time driving in Mexico.  The first time is occluded behind the gauze of memory, which is itself speckled with holes,  incomplete and porous like a sponge.

That time was two friends in my mom’s truck, federales with machine guns on a flatbed laughing at our monolingual-ness, and finding a surf spot based on referential directions, which may have been something along the lines of “take the third right after the rock painted white”.  This time was google maps, a detour, and a long line of stop signs and stoplights stuttering us out of the city.  And then Interstate 3, winding through sable-coated hills toasted warm with the coming summer and singed with the desert slinking in from the distance. The emptiness of the long ribbon of pavement, going somewhere correlated with a position on the map, comforted my angst.

I think this might be one of my hidden reasons for traveling.  Yes, I will confess it is to see something new, to understand life outside of all of my norms, my expectations and biases.  It is to peer through the curtain, and like a little voyeur revel in the shapes and textures of another life. But that is only part of it.

Slipping into another place, especially a different country where you don’t speak the language, where everything feels disjointed and like shadow or imitation of what you know—familiar enough, but still so different with its hand-painted business signs, the awkward shape of its streets and the composition of the road beneath the tires, even the chemical smell of the cleaning products—a hundred subtle things say, “this is not your home.  You don’t know this place,” and my brain at the same time insists that it must know because, besides the murky similarities, knowing is the best way to survive.  This is the dissonance; the jolt that brings fear and shakes me out of my complacency.

I hate not knowing. I hate being wrong. I hate failing. But THIS is the stuff of growing.  We can never be more than what we are, or different than what we are if we are never challenged. Living in the safe center of our lives is like living in a wax museum.  Artificial.  Constructed.  Perfectly the same.  We have to touch the edges of our capabilities in order to expand beyond our limitations. These experiences, uncomfortable though they are at times, provide the space to be challenged, to cast aside preconceived notions and to see the world through a different filter.  It is a spark to ignite the evolution of being.

The Power of Now

An assembly of recent strangers and now acquaintances were sitting on a sunlit patio in Italy at the end of a consensus conference.  They agreed on next steps for a new educational program and were congratulating themselves on surviving the two-day journey of “storming” and “norming” (as they say in group formation speech).  It was then, in the last moments of this meeting of minds, that one of the participants, Janet, said “We have ten minutes. Let’s go ahead and pick our case studies.”

Everyone groaned and protested.  They felt they had worked so hard, and now deserved a rest from the doing of anything. But Janet persisted. In that ten minutes they selected two stories to turn into case studies, outlined the contents, and nominated the working groups.

Janet did this time and again throughout my association with this particular organization.  Some people rolled their eyes, and protested, but in the end her gentle insistence won out, and progress was made.  I came to call this “the power of now”, and it is one of the greatest lessons I learned from Janet.

Procrastination, one could argue, is a general human tendency.  If it isn’t urgent, life-threatening, or otherwise pressing, why do today what you can put off for tomorrow.  While living in Italy, I became familiar with a phrase embracing this concept: Doppo domani. As in, I’ll do it the day after tomorrow.

I used to procrastinate, somehow feeling like a hero for staying up until 3 A.M. to put together a shoddy paper less than 24 hours before it was due.  While I have been able to whittle this mindset out of my life, it does still exist in various incarnations.  Do I get gas now, or put if off for the morning? Do I do that less desirable project now, or prioritize something over it? Do I take these last five minutes in my working day to be productive, or do I slide through that time?  Do I write this post, or zone out on facebook?

Here’s the thing; procrastination takes so much energy and is much more painful than just doing the task on a normal timescale.  I have never once regretted doing something now, which could be put off for tomorrow.  More often than not, I’ve been grateful to have tackled something on my ever-expanding list of things I want to accomplish.

There is a more philosophical tack to take on “the power of now”.  None of us know how much time we have in this existence.  A friend of a friend suddenly and unexpectedly lost her soulmate.  In these moments we reevaluate things we consider important.  When we are on the threshold of leaving this existence, what parts of our lives will bring us joy, and at what parts will we despair as distractions from the heart of living?  We can all use the power of now to build a more fulfilled life.

Alarms, Beeps, and Other Auditory Tortures

We live in a world filled with noise, both the noise we generate internally from all of our mind chatter, and the externally created noise we are confronted with at the moment we awake. There is soundless noise, and there is loud, obtrusive, and incessant noise, which is not merely an alert, but a demand, or an instrument of torture. 

My boyfriend and I are of the same persuasion.  Certain noises, unfortunately present in everyday life, make us want to do bad things to total strangers, like throw a brick through the windshield of a car whose alarm is going off for no damned reason at all.

Take, for example, a lovely Sunday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala exploring the ruined portion of a cathedral.  There is a working church on the site, and followers are praying and chanting and singing in the Sunday mass, and a breeze is picking up the ash dumped by Fuego days ago and shaping it into churlish clouds.  Fractured baroque architecture hangs above, incomplete and covered in soot and dust, and absolute lovely for everything it was and is no longer.

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Antigua, Guatemala, 2015 © JL Colomb

There are birds, and worshippers, and ruins and the moment is one to fold up and put into a tin of memories.  Until a freaking car alarm goes off.  And continues to go off.  Not for a little while, but for the next 20 minutes. 

The spell is broken.  We speed through the fetishes and votives, and flee from the jarring WAH WAH WAH of the car alarm, which we discover is attached to a new Black Mercedes parked in a handicapped spot though there are no plates or papers or placards denoting a need for handicapped accessibility of any kind.  What’s worse, is that the doors of the church have been open during the entire mass and the car is parked not 50 feet away directly in front of them. 

No one comes out.  No one has made a move to turn off their screeching car alarm even though, one could surmise, the owner of the car is sitting right there.

Another example lurks within the walls of our own home.  Suspect No. 1: the microwave.  Why does a microwave have to yell when it’s done?  We live in the age of advancing technology, of coding geniuses.  Why can’t we have chimes, or our favorite song, or how about a simple text message to say ‘hey, I made something for you and you might want to get it out of my belly and into your belly now’?  Why does it have to beep that jarring beep better suited for a real emergency, like fire or smoke?  And it’s not just one beep.  Four, or if you’re unlucky five, angry trill declarations will resound upon completion of the warming task.  The frequency of the beep is not the only thing that drives us crazy, it’s the pitch, too. [Aside: there was a New York Times article about what sound drives people crazy. A certain kind of baby cry, and a specific cat yowl had an equitable effect on helping people lose their rationale minds.]

Our coffee maker announces itself in this same attention seeking way.  It beeps when it’s finished brewing, and again three hours later when it decides the coffee in the thermal carafe is no longer drinkable.

I do understand these features, particularly on kitchen appliances, are desirable for some people.  I yield; however, a little extra engineering would give the rest of us an option to be free from beeping.

But now, one of my biggest nail-biting, head banging, ear gouging stimulus: lip-smacking, openmouthed chewing.  This, more than car alarms, microwaves and coffee makers, makes me want to navigate the world with my ears stuffed with wax. 

Other people don’t have the same sensitivity to this, and for the longest time I thought I was the crazy weirdo with super hearing.  As it turns out, I’m probably only misophonic.  Yep. Thanks to another New York Times article, I have diagnosed myself with this syndrome, which is so pervasive it is actually a syndrome with its own name.  Selective sound sensitivity syndrome (i.e. misophonia) is suspected when a person (like me) has an acute negative emotional response to specific stimuli.  The sounds of eating and fidgeting are popular triggers. The response? Annoyance, irritation and on the other end of the spectrum, actionable anger (the term sounded more pleasant than rage) and panic attacks.  I wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was afflicted by something like this.

We are impacted by the noises in our environment.  Car horns and alarms, speeding engines and squealing tires, arguments and anger.  And what do these sounds, or the sounds of gun shots, bombs, or the cries of someone in pain do to us? These frequencies ripple through our world.  They reshape us in the moment, and sometimes beyond.  We become to attuned to them; we bend to their peaks and troughs. From this perspective, consider the importance of silence.  Consider the critical nature of laughter, music, the sounds of the wind and birds and rain, and the joy the voice holds when we discover and wonder at something.

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Civica Jazz Band, Milano 2012 © JL Colomb

The Forest of the Ancients (a travelogue)

Nestled on the Eastern slopes of the White Mountains in the Inyo National Forest, lives a clan of ancients. The oldest of the impressive sentinels had already been living for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, before the creation of the famed Rosetta Stone.  They had already witnessed three quarters of a million sunrises and sunsets when the blocks for Stonehenge were being chiseled.  The Great Pyramids at Giza would have to wait yet another 500,000 sunsets and sunrises from that point before would they be conceived .  These creatures, the oldest living non-clonal organisms on the planet, are emblems of adaptability and survival.

I’ve had the honor of walking among these wonders thrice in my lifetime, and each time I have been amazed and humbled by them.  The steep dolomite slopes on which the Bristlecone Pines reside are rough and textured like the silvery skins of the trees themselves.

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Dolomite slopes

The Bristlecones stand alone and apart on these extreme inclinations; they thrive in the alkaline soil not because it is perfect for them, but because they are obstinate and adaptable and opportunistic enough to exist in an environment, which would kill most other plant life.  If that is not enough to hint at their stubborn nature, consider the Mohave Desert Basin lurking to the east far below Schulman’s Grove.

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Extreme and harsh environs surround the Bristlecones

To walk among them is akin to walking through the canyons of Zion National Park.  I taste my insignificance in these places, my transience.  I also sense wonder, and a host of other feelings in this vein.  Gratitude to be part of this experience, to be able to witness these creatures and creations, to stand amidst the art and science of time and revel in the absolute miracle of our planet.

The Bristlecone Pines perform their dance over eons.  For some species they grow as little as one inch per century.  Some 40 year-old seedlings in the White Mountains, where we were October 2016, are less than six inches tall.  The harsh environment, the growth rate, and the peculiarities all contribute to a movement in wood (for it really does appear that these trees undulate and dance).

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A photographer wandering among the Bristlecones can get lost through the lens.  The bark ranges from a silvery, monochromatic austerity to a warm vibrant glow.  It curls and folds like fluid ribbons tumbling from a gift.

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Ribbons

Serpentine, the gnarled limbs twist, as if to conjure their will and imagination into the world with the spell of their dance. 

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The Spell

The other striking thing about these trees is that it looks as if they wear their heartwood on the outside. As if, when they grow they fold outward, baring themselves, showing off the growing living sensitive bits of them.  I’m sure this is not the case.  I’m sure this is my uninformed and overly romantic interpretation.  Whatever the case, they are fluid magic.  They are historians. And hypnotists and sages.

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Writers aren’t superhuman (or the case for multiple dimensions)

Let’s get the whining out of the way right now. Writing is hard. And working on multiple novel-length projects while also trying to generate short content and still be a good friend and daughter and life partner and colleague – not to mention bathing and eating and sleeping – is the road to ruin. Maybe that’s excessive.  It’s a road akin to something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Desolate.  Smothering fatigue at the grind of an endless, hopeless task, like a pencil sharpened down to its eraser and thus rendered useless.

I must have a real point beyond the trite and predictable drone of complaint for my self-serving and ego-lifting activities. I have several, in fact, which can be distilled into a word appetizer: commitment, humility, and respect. These are big vague concepts, and lend themselves to rumination.

  1. Writing, and really any art form, requires time and dedication. Finished works do not birth themselves. They do not spring out of the ether, sleek and spry and ready to inflict upon people whatever laudable qualities they possess. A finished piece of writing is time laid out in crispy layers, like honeyed phyllo dough. It is strata of earth compressed. It is time condensed into one deceptive layer. The viewer does not see all of the time; they do not see all of the layers. We get credit for the finished piece, but we don’t get credit for all minutes and hours and weeks and months it took to create it.
  2. We are human beings, requiring sleep and sustenance (both for the body and the mind). We cry when we break a bone, or slice through our protective layer of skin. Or when a project becomes warped and stiff and unworkable.  We are not gods. We are not invincible. At times we are so short-sighted we can’t see the glasses on our noses as we desperately search for them. And yet our dreams are the size of galaxies, filled with light and darkness, radio frequencies and gasses, matter and anti-matter. We heap expectations, like Thanksgiving dinner, on our proverbial plates, and are diminished when lethargy takes hold not more than half-way through. It is this incongruity, which motivates us to create, and pains us at the immensity of the journey.
  3. The works we strive to create, those galaxies, are monoliths and we are pinpricks. Yet, a camera obscura is also a pinprick. In the right setting, it reveals the outside in inverted photographic clarity. We must take care to make the hole just right, to make the room dark enough, and to give the scene the right surface upon which to be exposed. We must make space for that thing to be created, as well as the process by which it’s created.

Though these three things are some of the dimensions of creativity, but they are by no means all. I have recently traveled through them (and others), and I will do so again soon. Each new foray starts as a beautiful day, with the fall nowhere in sight.

The Aesthetics of Bodie (a travelogue)

Hiding in the sagebrush, tucked between the folds of the soft hills dwell the bones of something.  Bones of wood and metal, fabric and stone.  They are hard, these bones. They have 90º angles, which time and the desert try to soften, or erase completely.

Some of the bones still bleed, or otherwise carry in them the notion of a time before decay and abandonment.

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bones of bodie, (c) JL Colomb

 

I first experienced Bodie over 20 years ago, which was fortunately right when I had become enthralled with photography.  We had visited the alkaline Mono Lake—steeped in stark alien beauty—earlier that day.  Continuing into the California wilderness, away from cities and streetlights, crowds and corner stores, was like pulling back the veil of modern civilization and stepping into a past living at the edges of our memory.

The road, a dirt washboard bearing all the evidence of the harsh climate of the area, was long and rough.  When we finally arrived, the late autumn sunset streaked its long golden arms over the hills and the remains the town birthed by the gold rush.

It was spectacular, this place of arrested decay; this evidence of our past and greed, of our human drive to make a home.

I had my own 35mm camera, and a certain amount of technical skill.  Through the lens, I explored the former businesses, houses, and outhouses.  I slipped through the graveyard and peered through windows to witness the pieces of what people leave behind.

All these years later, my feelings about Bodie and my reactions to it have not changed.  If anything, they’ve deepened as I become more comfortable with my dour sense of aesthetics.

I am obsessed with states of decay, titillated by the things we leave behind.  Perhaps it’s unusual, and I myself have had a hard time rationalizing this preference, understanding it in the context of the human experience.  Part of it is entangled with the mutability of life.  We are born, we create, and we lean into the next passage.  Evidence of our existence endures in some form, but our legacy is ever changing according to the influence of other factors.  We become a painting turned over to the curator of time; an abandoned home, picked through for salvage, and otherwise left to the process of unbecoming.

But the aesthetics of decay can also easily be a rejection of something, rather than strictly an embrace of it.  We live in a disposable society, where seemingly everything bears the stamp of built-in obsolescence; where we answer the fatigue of familiarity with a donation or trash run in parallel with the shopping trip for the new and wondrous.  We don’t live in a world of unfettered abundance, and what we take cannot be put back. I favor valuing an object for it’s persistence, and acquiring it with intention so I can use it well past its age of usefulness.  I suspect my attachment to decay relates to this aspect as well as any other.

There is a more simple driver, removed from this self-obsessed mental flossing exercise.  Decay can be beautiful.  Period. In tonality and texture.  In visual framing and juxtaposition.  In patterns and contrast.

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oxidized, ©JL Colomb

The soft sable texture of disuse.

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standing still, ©JL Colomb

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the left behinds, ©JL Colomb

The curling of the clapboards as the wood of the house dries and peels away from its intended use and returns to some process more natural to its existence

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clapboards in the desert, ©JL Colomb

It’s an emptiness you can step into and inhabit.