It is that time again.
I am driving. Driving winding roads, up Pennsylvania Route 944, over the blue mountain and into No Man’s Land. I am going somewhere, but I am not sure where just yet. This is more a drive of the soul, you see, and when I arrive at the place that I’m supposed to be going… I will know.
I live and die with a British progressive rock artist by the name of Steven Wilson. Each time he releases a new record, I make this same ritualistic pilgrimage to Nowhere-In-Particular, just to listen, absorb, and reflect on life since the last time I’ve made this journey. It is beyond spiritual for me, beyond religious. Since the 2007 release of his late band Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, this trip has become an infallible method for measuring personal growth; a metaphorical line, scribbled onto the moulding beside the laundry room door.
It is that time again.
Hand. Cannot. Erase. The title of this new album.
I admit, the album hasn’t actually been released just yet, but the first single has, and I’ve elected to make an early pilgrimage this year. I just need it, man, whew. These last few months, my insides have been a disastrously messy bedroom. The most disastrously messy bedroom. And I have been repeatedly running the fuck away from cleaning that mess up.
What a perfect time of year, though. These Steven Wilson releases almost always come with the turn of the year, and here we are, two-thousand-and-fifteen. Well, holy shit. Twenty-fifteen has found me resolution-less and uncertain. I don’t particularly believe in New Years’ resolutions, because I truthfully cannot remember the last time I’ve made one and stuck to it. What I do believe in is January 2nd resolutions, and December 31st resolutions, and anything in between. For some reason, those feel like they carry more weight.
But in any case, it is now January 4th, and I resolve to take pause and figure out what in the fuck has happened over the course of this past year. Alright, now I’m not resolution-less!
When twenty-fourteen turned over, I was living happily in Southern California, working unhappily for the company I’d started my design career with, and indifferently in love with a man that I’d been both happily and unhappily committed to for three years. It all was what it was.
I’ll break 2014 down into three chapters, the only real chapters of life that I see important: Living, Working, and Loving.
– – –
Chapter 1. Living:
Southern California was my home, and I loved it. I loved it so much. I talked often about leaving, and I talked often about my disdain for certain parts of life in Los Angeles. It was alright, though, because on those days when life just felt like too much, I would venture to the foothills of Altadena, armed with an iPod and my trusted Reeboks, and for the next few hours, my feet would duke it out with the terrain.
Echo Mountain. God, I love that place. It’s this 6 mile, roundtrip hiking trail that winds straight upwards, full of switchbacks and joyful hikers, ascending the 3200-foot mountain. This trail was perfect for running. A hell of a workout going up, scenic bliss heading down. Once you got to the old railroad at the top of Echo, you could then continue onwards for another two miles until you reached Inspiration Point. It’s about 2800 feet of elevation gain over the course of a little over 5 miles, so it wasn’t for the inexperienced mountain stroll, but the payoff sure was beautiful: a spread of telescopes, one pointing towards each notable piece of Los Angeles, and a centerpiece, labeled “Inspiration Point,” pointing straight at the heart of whomever looked through it. Clever. I liked that.
I remember the very first time I hiked this trail. I think it was January of 2013. I brought my friend Wes along. He had recently developed an avid interest in hiking, but wasn’t quite as used to the terrain, so I ended up running the last leg of the trek and waiting for him at Inspiration Point. There was something odd about that day. I was in the middle of working on the first Hobbit movie, and I’d been more-or-less living at the office. Usually Southern California was dependably good for sun, but the big, fiery ball in the sky had apparently taken a mental health day, in exchange for a shining, golden layer of gently-rolling fog, sitting atop miles and miles of jagged green. I stood, waiting for my friend, looking out over the landscape below me.
“Looks so… Tolkien-esque, doesn’t it? Like something out of Middle Earth,” a man’s voice mused behind me. I hadn’t even seen him there, perched on the wooden trellis.
“I can’t stop thinking that, myself.”
The man’s name was Greg. Half-hour later, Wes was pacing himself the 5 miles down the mountain, and Greg and I were happily running side-by-side, spilling mutual loves of beer, baking, and early 90’s Sarah McLachlan. We became fast friends. Greg had grown up in Altadena and he knew the San Gabriel mountains without question. I loved exploring those mountains.
Chapter 2. Working:
The job, I knew it wouldn’t last. I’d been at the company since I was an intern in 2010 and in so many ways, I felt indebted to it. Like an indentured servant that could make nothing of himself without permission from an abusive master. All bullshit, by the way!
I had loved it initially. I loved the content. I loved working on Hollywood blockbusters, seeing my design work play on the silver screen, feeling proud that I was making things that mattered, that everybody saw! Just as much, I loved the people that I was forced to endure the graphics sweatshop lifestyle with as well. Over time, things started changing though. Those people started leaving. Mass layoffs starting happening. Things didn’t feel good anymore.
So many times I’d broken down, torrential downpours erupting from my face, while I sat at my desk listening to the familiar “ding!” of renders finishing. I realized that chained to a desk, Vitamin B deficient and miserable, was not the way I wanted to spend my mid-twenties. I’d transferred offices. I’d changed my work schedule numerous times. Those things were only temporary fixes though.
People would always give me scathing looks of judgment when I’d discuss wanting to leave. I think, from the outside, my friends and family thought that because I worked with awesome people, on awesome projects, that everything was just that – awesome. What they didn’t realize, was that when I’d look in the mirror, I couldn’t recognize the person I’d become. The shell of someone, always so full of happiness and creativity, now devoid of any feeling but hate and resentment for the situation I felt completely stuck in.
That’s the worst feeling, ever, by the way. Imagine having dinner with yourself, sitting across from yourself at the table. Former you is vibrant, beautiful, and excited. You remember exactly what it was like to be that person, but you cannot remember how to be that person anymore. They’re right there! Right across from you! So close, yet completely unreachable. I hated that feeling.
And I was totally fucking stuck.
In reality, I was not stuck, but in my mind, I was stuck. And this is one thing that 2014 taught me greatly: if you are stuck of mind, you are stuck of body. There is a physical freedom that comes from truly liberating your mind of unhealthy patterns of thought. So, 2014 rolled around, a new art director rolled in, and the winds changed once more.
Quite frankly, I thought she sucked. She wasn’t a good manager, I learned far too much about her menstrual problems, and she was one for making backhanded, condescending comments directed mostly towards me. One summer day, my “just shut up and do what you’re told” lever broke – violently – sending me full-speed into “take no more shit and do not care about the consequences.”
Chapter 3. Loving:
He was the only man I’d ever wanted seriously to move in with, to build a home and a life with. To do all of those things that my parents and my Facebook News Feed seem to think you’re supposed to do.
I’ll keep this chapter short and sweet, for now, because I could probably go on for a year on the subject, if I wanted to.
Sometimes things happen. Sometimes people do stupid things. In the case of this relationship, we both did enormously stupid things, we both pushed each other away. I don’t want to give you the impression that we were in some terrible place though, it wasn’t like that. We were still the best of friends. We still spent lots of evenings together cooking food and drinking Charles Shaw, among other vices we shared.
We did not speak to each other at all for several months after I made a rushed decision and moved 3000 miles away from my home in Southern California.
Oh, that’s right. 2014. I moved.
– – –
I’m still driving. The Pennsylvania backroads are still winding over rolling hills. The leaves have already fallen.
This is where I live now.
Those naked trees are still breathing near-freezing oxygen into my lungs and I am still listening to this new Steven Wilson release. And you know what? I am completely sated.
K.D. Lang once said at a concert, prior to erupting into her signature tune Constant Craving, “If you leave here tonight feeling somewhat unfulfilled, feeling not quite sated, please remember that this is the human condition.”
I couldn’t forget those words if I tried. It’s so goddamn easy to find small things to be unhappy with. It’s so easy to pick out the things that aren’t right, or don’t work, or just feel off. But when you work at maintaining the perspective that those things are just part of our wiring, it’s easier to forgive them, see past them, see the great things.
In March of 2014, my dad had suffered some health problems. I’d felt that my cross-country absence was weighing on me, that I was missing things I shouldn’t have been missing. As mentioned, I was extraordinarily unhappy at my job, and my relationship was ailing as well, so I began passively looking for new job opportunities, just figured I’d see if anything hit.
Late June, the freedom I’d so been desiring from my job finally came, leaving me feeling quite uncertain. I didn’t have a plan beyond that, but I was just so happy to be free, to finally have the time to focus on myself and the business I’d been building up for the last couple of years. This was the turning point at which my feet starting moving as my brain fought desperately to keep up.
A recruiter called me towards the end of July. A pharmaceutical company in Pennsylvania really wanted to meet me. What? A company was eager to meet me?!
This was a completely foreign concept to me at the time (see Chapter 2), so I figured I’d throw caution to the wind and see what happened. I started severing ties to things I felt trapped in. The work first, then the relationship, then fast forward to the middle of August. Suddenly I’m signing a two year agreement and packing up my Southern California life. My friends were skeptical, most met my news with the “you’ll be back” sentiment and I’m glad they did. I will be back, guys. But not before I find something – something that I am on a quest for.
I’m also glad I pushed forward, though, through the tearful goodbyes, through the final shows with my band, through the last runs up Echo Mountain, and finding myself here now.
Here, now: driving through Rednecksville, Pennsylvania. Listening to Steven Wilson. My ritualistic drive-and-listen. Just breathing it all in. The smell of Middle America.
The wonderful thing about retroactively reviewing the last year’s journey, is that it gives you time to rewrite some of the things that you may have otherwise written off.
And here we are, the Pennsylvania Chapters: Life After California. Erm. Life in the Interim.
Chapter 4: Small Town Pennsylvania.
There are no real mountains here, at least not the majestic ones that I had grown used to. But there are still these rolling hills that I’ve been driving atop for the last hour or so. I’ve lost track of time, I think.
It’s crisp and cold outside, snow has started to fall. This is certainly a far cry from the swings on Venice Beach, where I had spent so many thinking hours just a few short months ago.
There was a boy. A boy I’d been friends with since college, a boy who made me laugh with his incessant and vulgar jokes. With the LA boy behind me, PA boy flew to California and made the cross-country trek with me. To be honest – or maybe just rude – I really should have known then. The trip was fine. Not great. Not terrible. Just fine.
The first time I made a cross-country journey, I did it on my own. It was one of the most liberating and wonderful experiences of my life. No rules. No schedules. No one to worry about but myself. Myself, my camera, and a whole lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival. This time around was different. Schedules. Routes. Planning. World War II Podcasts. It was just so fucking vanilla. I felt like I’d been married to this man for two decades, and we’d become an indifferent middle-aged couple who sat reading opposite books on opposite sides of the room. We sort-of-half-dated for a few months, merely going through the motions.
He farted into my hand one evening, at a bar in West Chester. It was one of the most disrespectful and disgusting thing anyone has ever done to me. It was at that moment that I realized I could never love this man. It was also at that moment that I decided I hated him for making me believe that moving across the country to a stupid fucking small town was a good idea. That this would somehow quell the aches; fix the cracks in my soul.
Of course, he didn’t actually make me do anything. He’s actually quite a stand-up gentleman. Loyal and trustworthy to a fault. The reality was that I just needed something to hate. I needed something, anything to blame for my discontent. Eventually, I came to my senses and broke off the relationship. And I didn’t even stop to look back.
Through that, through all of it – the move, the mixed feelings, everything – the greatest realization that I came to was this: I did not know who I was and I did not know what I wanted.
I didn’t want to be in Los Angeles. Now I didn’t want to be in Pennsylvania.
I didn’t want to work in the Entertainment Industry. Now I didn’t want to work in the Pharmaceutical Industry.
I didn’t want to love LA Boy. Now I didn’t even like PA Boy.
Happiness just seems like such a simple thing. Why wasn’t it rearing it’s joyous little head in any of the places that I had been searching? I’d combed over cities, and towns, and jobs, and relationships and still, I couldn’t find this thing – the only thing I really wanted. You know, people can tell you over and over and over again that happiness comes from within. But some people (me) just don’t listen until they really feel it.
Things move a little slower in Middle America. I found further misery here in Pennsylvania when I discovered that most of my friends coped with the cold weather by spending time in bars that smell of broken dreams and lack of ambition. By proxy, I started spending a lot more time with myself. Slowly, the winds started to change again.
Thanks to a lovely woman named Nina, I found Power Yoga. Thanks to a few good recommendations, I found books. Thanks to lonely hotel rooms on business trips, I found writing. Some of those lonesome nights, I feel so truly joyful that at times I might explode. Thanks to having my own space, I found cooking. Thanks to respect, great coworkers, and a little thing called creative freedom, I found that I loved my job.
And thanks to a general lack of interest in small town boys (I still have a heart for that LA man who never quite left my brain, after all), I found that I did not need anyone else in my life to help define me.
I only needed me.
Man, what a liberating feeling.
– – –
Hand. Cannot. Erase. I love this song. It’s poppy, and unusual, and rather unlike Steven Wilson, but I love it. I’ve listened to it roughly 742 times now, over the course of several hours and far too many miles. This was more a drive of the soul, you see, and when I have arrived at the place that I’m supposed to be going… I will know.
The last few notes drift colorfully out from beneath their home in my Jetta’s dash. Melancholic, but beautiful.
I have arrived.
And I, am home.