Alone in Company

Before my eyes open, I begin my day by searching for my phone. My hand runs over the covers, under the pillow, along the stack of books on my bedside table. More often than not, I find it and am plunged into the rush of notifications, which I absorb with one eye closed, because of my astigmatism. But some mornings my phone has fallen between the bed and the wall. The first time this happened I tried to carry on with my morning, feed the cats, pee, but a feeling kept sounding the alarm that I had forgotten something. I paced the apartment, into the kitchen, back into the bedroom, the bathroom. My husband was sleeping and to retrieve my phone from between the bed and the wall would be to wake him, which is precisely what I found myself doing. And before the sun was up we were moving the mattress, so I could snatch that which brings me, joy.

Last night I found Garden State streaming on HBO GO. Without weighing my decision, I pressed play. And as Sam and Andrew met and carried on with the dialogue of their un-woke romance, the soundtrack washed over me. I was on the precipice of my college experience that summer, flitting around with boys I didn’t plan on seeing past August, just shy enough in age to look up to the characters as harbingers of my own twenties. I saw the film in theaters three times, fourteen years ago. Nathan Rabine had not yet written the article that catapulted the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into existence, my grandmother was still alive, Bush was president, and I had been accepted to my dream art school, which I would be attending in fall.

The soundtrack to Garden State is my first studio. Organizing the paints. Being alone for hours in my room with a quill and ink and a pad of paper the size of an infant bed. Falling in love with Sonny and then with Jake. Recovering from the Halloween party of a school filled with kids like me.

Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all.

When I think of all the freshmen college students ready to have their first holidays away from home with friends they have only known for a few months my throat gets tight. Because what time in my life will ever be as important and rich and poised with moment, than the times that have already passed? Parenthood, I suppose is the one coin I have left to collect before I can truly say or feel that my “poised with moment” moments have come to pass. But there is still so much figuring out I have to do before I can be a mother. So many things to write. Books to read. Art to make. Money to be earned. So why do I squander away my time, so many days on my phone, immersed in the scrolling and clicking and taking naps next to a bedside table with a stack of partially read books?

Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all. When does a person amount to something? How does one know when they have amounted? Perhaps we never know and that’s the sort of thing that can only be accounted for posthumously.

Maybe I am lazy with my aspirations because I don’t want for much. Somedays, laying in a sunbeam on my bed, soft music coming from somewhere in the house, my two hilarious, precious, unusual cats curled up on me, Fig on my right shoulder, Budderlamb on my chest, I watch them pull whiffs of our neighborhood with their intricate noses and think, How can I ever want anything more? My husband and I have hung chandelier crystals in our bedroom window. So every fall and winter, when the sun moves lower in the sky, rainbows dance across our walls all day. It’s no wonder I don’t get much done. I am keenly aware that these are The Good Days.

So why, when I watch Garden State, or Good Will Hunting, or read Sylvia Plath or books about the activists in Taiji, Japan, protesting the slaughter of dolphins, do I wish I was smarter? Contributing more to the world? Working harder? There must be something in those things that resonates with me. Is it more than the desire for prestige? More than the validation of a title? Of bragging rights? I don’t really know. I do know that sometimes when I see images and posts of my friends’ successes, I am filled with such a combination of envy and self-loathing that I scroll past, or don’t finish reading about the publication, grant or fellowship that they are over the moon to share. Sometimes I see the post. Let it settle somewhere inside me before liking or commenting on it. And after I am fortified with breakfast, or a shower, or some small victory of my own, will I revisit, explode into an an emojistorm of congratulations. Because I do mean it. I mean it, and everyone is watching.

I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone— which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time.

I have been asked what it means to be an artist in 2018. I hardly know. For me, it is to fear that every word or image is a window into public, political and social tumult. It means you have to be more vulnerable than you or anyone in times previous has ever been. Everything tells us it’s a society poised on the brink of collapse and chaos, more segregated in our righteousness than we have ever been. It is the loneliest time to have a heart with the desire to share anything at all. Social capital is the currency, and if you have none you are poor. Of course, it is a time of great revelations. Of the ground being cracked apart to be re-laid. It’s a jackhammer and a whirlpool and a plague. Relentless in the sludge of information that pours through our screens by the hour. Where are we headed from here? Where can we possibly go?

I crave Inverness. Dancing Coyote Beach and the fireplace in the cottages there. And the nap I took, lulled into a thick sleep by the lapping of Tomales Bay. I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone—which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time. I crave aloneness from the dishes and the plans. And the piles of paper in my studio. The boxes of “art” that have not sold but might. I crave oblivion to offset the aloneness and aloneness from the desire for oblivion, and yet, this is the most alone I may have ever felt.

In college of at the start of my junior year, I didn’t yet have an apartment and the calendar had snuck up on me suddenly. I found myself entirely unprepared for school, in the thick of class sign ups and foundation courses with nowhere to live and a trash bag of cocktail dresses in the trunk of my windowless ‘93 Camry, that I had intended to sell but instead became my temporary wardrobe. I moved into my studio on campus which was a drywall space with an open ceiling in a block of several other similar units. For the first two months of that year, I slept on a futon there, where the overhead lights were on all the time; it often reeked of cigarettes and weed, and you could hear all hours gossip from the other students who didn’t suspect you were silently existing nearby. I showered early in the morning, in the security office and kept a large bowl nearby which I peed into, when the bathrooms were too many flights of stairs to get to in time. On my desk with the art supplies were two boxes of cereal which I couldn’t keep safe from the rats whose chewing kept me awake at night. I painted and sculpted in there, destroying the cocktail dresses from having future homes. And when I felt lonely I would go to the library to see people studying, peruse the books, and to check my Myspace in the computer lab.

That’s what it was to be an artist in 2006.

Now, it feels entirely devoid of that romance. Now, my art is better. I know technical shortcuts and where to buy the materials I need at the best prices. I have evolved immeasurably in my approach and my craft. I have slowed down and quickened my pace. I have a true home. The home of an adult married lady with a closet of clothes and cats and cereal that does not get chewed on by rats.

But I am more scared now than I ever was of making and sharing art. The size of the world seems to have grown with my access to the information in my pocket. And in that, my sense of uniqueness, of necessariness, of relevance has diminished, which before the age of the smartphone, played a subterranean, but crucial role in my creative machine.

In 2012, I was in the worst part of what would be a four-year existential crisis. I didn’t know why humans were here on earth or what the point of it all was. And one afternoon at Bed Bath N’ Beyond sent me spiraling out of control—the isles of Yankee candles and plug in wall fresheners seemed to me, everything that was wrong with the world (in particular a heavy blue Yankee candle with a tiny sailboat on the front called Life’s A Breeze). When I rounded the bend on my crisis I had settled with a personal knowledge that some things were just too big for us to know, and that my particular life was not designed to answer the big questions. I was not meant to see the man behind the curtain or get friendly with the abyss. For it did, as Nietzsche forewarned, begin to gaze back into me. Maybe too, is this VIP pass we’ve created to everything, that we take with us everywhere, too big for my spirit to hold. But how to move forward? Tossing my phone into the LA river and moving deep into the woods of the San Geronimo valley seems as counterproductive as spending four hours of my day engaged with my phone. In the end, they both leave me isolated. At least one of these options gives me the illusion of camaraderie, community. Alone, but in company.

 

Chelsea Bayouth is a writer and Emmy Award Winning visual artist from Los Angeles, California. Her poetry and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Roanoke Review, Borderlands, Harpoon Review, The Rattling Wall/PEN Center USA, Heavy Feather Review, Stirring Lit, and many others. More of her work can be found on her website www.chelseabayouth.com.