My flat sat perched like a drowsy god on a steep hill. Nob Hill, to be exact. Its entrance was marked by a large stairwell ascending into an open mouth; stairs like a jagged tongue, and with swollen, half-awake eyes as windows.
As is often the case with me, I rarely left my little space, unless it was to go to and from my art classes at SFAI, when I’d walk the other hills between my art school and my flat.
Was there really a foghorn piercing the sounds of traffic and trolley cars back in 1998? Has the haze of the passing decades embedded fog as a figment into a slippery memory loop?
I can still see the fluorescence of the glow of the occasional storefront; a laundromat, a wine store, a mom and pop corner shop hovering over the clunking sound my platform patchwork leather boots would make after my escape from my late night classes.
Swish bump, swish bump. My brown leather messenger bag accompanying the sound of my shoes on pavement as I walked up Chestnut, turned left onto Hyde, and swish bumped the 11 blocks until my right onto Clay Street. One mile, to be exact. Each step toward home taking me further from the bay and Alcatraz. Today, Google maps tells me it was a 22 minute walk.
Burdened by more than my bag, with an interior haze far stronger than any bay area fog, I’d often make a small detour at the wine shop, then swill that white wine with a few sleeping pills when I got home.
I’m sure there was fog and a foghorn. One thing I know is that my heart was heavy, distracted, and afraid. Even then my relationships with others caved into my world and obliterated the beautiful sites that surrounded me — and the beauty that was within me, too. I was so lucky to see and be in all the places I lived but I could not quite touch them or see them. I was forever imploding, feeling lost, and panicking about upsetting people and giving them a reason to leave my world. I lived in a perpetual terror-hell of doing something wrong, because when I was a child ‘doing something wrong’ made words, hands, isolation, shame, punishment, and a world of nightmares close in.
I always had my journals and my camera, though. Always.
And I always them with me in San Francisco, which Teddy and I used to call San FranDisco. Especially my journal: in class, in a coffee shop, in the darkroom, in my tiny studio apartment on the second floor of that old Victorian. Always writing, always a journal.
Teddy was another photographer who also came from NYC. We had shared a darkroom and classrooms in Manhattan, and now we shared this tiny flat in the heart of San Francisco. We didn’t share a bed or each other’s bodies. We shared artistry though, and met on that rarified plane where true artsy-fartsy folk know how to stoke the most palpable fires in one another. I have the polaroids still, from the short film we shot back then. Frozen time capsules, those square artsyfartsy-scapes in black and white.
The polaroids are taped in a journal filled with my daily writings.
They include my first forays into what would emerge as a lifelong intensive immersion into mythology.
It happened somewhere between NYC and San Francisco: my steady progression from Sylvia Plath to Anais Nin to Henry Miller to Kerouac and the Beats to Joseph Campbell. In my journals are drawings of fat, fertile goddesses. Poems about the moon and stars. Musings about my mystical enigma of a father. Endless updates about the two boys I pined for, Kelly and Paul. God, how I loved them. I loved them far more than I loved myself.
(Wait. If you stop and think about it, that’s not really love. It’s something so much emptier than that. But I don’t regret it, those boys, those memories, that hollowed-out love state. I still have their handwritten letters, poems, and their photographs. They are taped in the pages of those journals too. Little tearjerkers, still).
How to be a happier person.
How to live my dreams.
How to let myself out of the cages I perpetually locked myself into.
How to be whole.
These were the topics that peppered the pages of my journals, with photographs of my present self … and hauntings from my future self.
It’s almost like I was reaching backward from where I sit now with encouraging maternal whispers to a young girl on the brink of her Heroine’s Journey.
In twenty years you’ll be a mother. You will have traveled the world. You won’t give your heart away to those two boys anymore, but there will be others. You will learn hard lessons. You will have written two books, created numerous films, traveled the world, and documented your travels through hundreds of thousands of photographs. You will have alchemized your traumas, pains, hollowed-out love obsessions, and you will have reached thousands of hearts.
Maybe I felt I had to go through all that stuff to earn the right to be alive.
Maybe I feel like that still, sometimes.
There were also pizza boxes in that little flat. Stacked maybe 5 or 10 high. Because I always ate pizza for dinner. On repeat. I never cooked, and never really branched out to other meals. I’m a Taurus, a creature of habit, so I’m still like that, all these years later. Except I don’t eat pizza now. I’m more into rotisserie chicken and sunflower seeds and grapefruit these days. I know. It’s boring. It’s just who I am. No cooking or kitchen time or all the little kitchen thingie-whatsits that other people have and do; it’s such a little quirk of mine to view time in the kitchen as a timesuck. But I do. Back then it was pizza: spinach and feta on thin crust. And the empty pizza boxes sat in my dishes-free kitchen, stacked evidence of what might actually be considered a symptom of an inability to care for myself, truly.
One afternoon Teddy threw out the pizza boxes. Thank goodness. Another quirk of mine is I don’t notice stuff like pizza boxes stacking up. I’m so often in other worlds that its like my eyes don’t exist on this planet. It’s kinda like the fog and the foghorn. It’s real unless it isn’t, but I sometimes don’t know the difference.
Later that evening, I was home alone. I took a hot fucking bath. The kind I like. That still hasn’t changed in all these twenty years. Scalding like the flames of hell itself, so that my skin burns going in, and I almost pass out upon rising up like a boiled Venusian water creature, blood pressure slow as molasses in January, and all of life drifting just a little bit over there to the other side of the room … maybe even up to the ceiling.
Still in pass-out zone, I heard a rat-a-tat-tat on the front door. Pulling tight my cornflower blue fluffy bathrobe, I answered. It was my landlord. The pizza boxes had stuffed the garbage chute and he was furious and I don’t even know what he said, or what I said.
It took me hours to recover from the severe trauma-response that shook my body from his words and anger. I don’t remember anything except curling up on my twin bed under the two colossal windows that ushered the majesty of the constellations into bed with me. Oh, how I was shaking. Uncontrollably. Like the teutonic plates underneath San Francisco were lurching and crashing into my muscles, seizing me up in full-bodied danger crescendos I had zero control over.
This wasn’t the first time my body seized up. It was such a familiar feeling to me. But that’s a whole other tangent.
However, that’s when I realized that something was really quite wrong with me, and that all those moments from childhood had added up; just like the pizza boxes clogging the garbage, all the days of my life had clogged up my body.
That’s when I realized that I had a body, that it was vulnerable and broken, and that I needed to figure out how to feel, purge, and express all the stuff jammed inside.
I had no idea how. But, I knew that convulsing in terror because of pizza boxes and a grumpy (justifiably) landlord was no way to live life.
I didn’t know where to begin unpacking the trauma. I didn’t even know it was trauma, and it would be many years still until I would learn that I had a damaged nervous system from repeated and prolonged abuse, and that my body operated on a default: C-PTSD.
I turned to books, art, my journal writing, and history. You see, that was always my thing. When I was a little girl I hid, alone, and read books, made books and drawings, documented my thoughts in journals, hoarded National Geographic magazines, and combed my mother’s collection of books. There was no television in our home. There was no interaction, either, except the kind I avoided.
And so, right there on Nob Hill in San Francisco, I reverted back to what I knew. Books. Art. History. My pen and journal. That’s when I began my journey as a painter, too.
As luck would have it, one of the books assigned for a class I was taking at the time was The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. I’d been reading through the origins of Christianity and the ancient goddess myths for a while by then, but a new layer clicked when I read his words. I suddenly became aware that there was a deep, evocative power waiting to be claimed in the ancient mythological traditions. (I include religions and their myriad of characters under the umbrella of myth).
With Joseph Campbell leading the way, I began combing through the mythologies for the gentle mothers, the powerful warrior women, the fathers who were actually there. I began to see the patterns, the nuances, and the metaphors in all of the stories.
I understood through Campbell’s wisdom that I could reach up, out, and back in time to the benevolent and triumphant characters that existed in these sweeping narratives. His work showed me that I could imbue myself with what was possible instead of staying clogged up with what had happened. No longer did I need to be owned by something that I did not choose. Instead I could unlock some kind of new trajectory for myself.
I was 25 years old and lost, which I was well aware of. Also, talented as hell, which I was not aware of. Also … I didn’t want to ever again experience the tremors of trauma ripping me senseless because of pizza boxes in a garbage chute.
I found comfort in the myths, and my relationship with the study of mythology was born. Maybe it was because I’m so often in another place that I can just be swept into ‘those places’. Maybe it’s because my imagination runs on ethereal steroids. Maybe it’s just a knack. But this stuff is as real as it gets for a girl like me.
I began to catch a whiff of how corrupted I had become with all the boxes I was supposed to keep myself in, how my childhood in an extremely religious household had messed with me from head to toe and everywhere in between, and how culture imposes limitations on us that keep us in cages. We accept these cages, take them as normal, and then wonder why we are anxious, depressed, addicted, and disconnected.
This was my first encounter with the notion that we are literally taboo from the moment we are born. Too this, too that, not enough this, not enough that. This idea became a lifeline for me, and I began to study the pathways that keep us locked into our unhappiness, in addition to reading everything I could get my hands on about the origins of religion. Not surprisingly, they were connected. And — mythology became a new sideshow, a new lens, a new obsession to study.
When I ‘study’ anything it’s more like a full body + sixth sense experience. Studying is cerebral, and while my brain is involved, so is every other inch of me. To study, for me, is to call in, to embrace, to fold myself into, to engage my senses, to let my full body absorb, to dissect, to ponder, to communicate with, to forever venture deeper.
In this space, I take nothing at face value. I don’t really give a crap what other people think or say or how they define the myths and symbolism at play.
I want my own meaning.
We really, really, really need to stop inhaling and gobbling everyone else’s meanings of life. Don’t you think?
Back in 1998, I began to truly explore MY own meaning of ME through mythological characters, and I began with the study of Persephone.
I witnessed the sheer POWER that she wove out of her traumas, and the gifts that lay within the darkness she had been thrust in to. Her Hades was the darkness of victimization — but she refused to be a victim, and instead turned that darkness into her kingdom and became the uncontested Queen of Hell.
I wanted to be a Queen. Especially of my inner hell.
I still do.
What about you?
This article is excerpted from Erin’s online workshop Taboo. Erin is an artist, author, traveler, seeker, and teacher. Learn more at www.erinfaithallen.com