“…and I turned around in that house which was like a shallow garden and all my fears collapsed upon me like a landslide of flowers and I ran screaming at the top of my lungs outside and down the stairs.”
– Richard Brautigan
At some point I realized most of southern California is the same: the same outdoor strip malls, same plants, same sunlight driving in sideways in the early evening. April is just as boring in Long Beach (where I live) as it is in San Diego (where I used to live).
I have lived here, alone, in a room downtown for eight months; my hair has grown four inches. I used to be afraid to leave my window open. I still sometimes sleep with the light on. Living alone in a new city is complicated for someone who loves solitude and people equally. I am still depressed, as I have been since I was sixteen, and it catches up to me at night but in a new, lonely adult way, especially when I’m on the bus headed home, watching neon light streak past the window, stepping off at my stop that’s recently become overgrown with bougainvilleas.
When I cross the street to my block, I am caught by the sight of a big pink bush – it’s new, I’ve never noticed it before. It speaks to me. I am tiredly mesmerized, bleary eyed. I stare and wonder what type of flower it is. Rhaphiolepis indica, Indian Hawthorn. Its variety? A “Ballerina”. A Ballerina bush. A sprig of it was carried here from China some hundreds of years ago, and now it’s here with its thick root buried in the dirt in front of my building, dwarfing my depression, taking my mind off feeling sad and basking it in color.
Being depressed in California is a singular experience – when bad feelings push up against the omnipresence of sunshine. At the beginning of my move and new life living alone in a city empty of people I recognized, I was using a lot of inner resources, to quote John Berryman; I had plenty, but they all were in service of me being alone. I had trained myself to be as self sufficient as possible but now it was all I knew how to do.
Downtown Long Beach is dirty, coated in oil and teeming with bugs. Someone is always yelling. There are a lot of pastel Art Deco buildings and Modernist style churches. There’s a florist shop aptly named Beautiful California Florist and they blast smooth jazz from the speakers attached to their building in the morning.
When you’re depressed you can feel every bone in your body. Sometimes your skin hurts and simple tasks seem impossible. Living alone requires a certain special sense of duty. If you’re too tired to clean, no one will pitch in your proportion of the work. You take up 100% of the pie chart: you kill all the spiders, you take out all the trash. If no one cooks, you do not eat. When I am alone in my apartment writing on the weekends, I forget that I have a body. I float through the same three spaces – kitchen, desk, and bathroom – like a ghost. There is no one here to witness me and I feel fictitious, theoretical, fleshless. Is this what ghosts feel like? Like breeze passing through windows?
Depression suffocates – it’s like a gummy film, dulling everything. It’s difficult to explain depression to someone who isn’t depressed. From the outside it may look like laziness or boredom. It’s not. Sometimes it comes in waves, bumping into you when you least expect it, running up to meet you at the end of a long day. Sometimes it’s like sitting in an unventilated room, stagnant air surrounding. When I’m stir crazy and lonely, I leave the house and walk.
The other thing about Long Beach is that it has a life-giving breeze – it flows up the street in gusts. Simon Rodia walked here from Watts for three hours and back to collect sea shells for his Towers. A long way to walk.
At first, walking alone feels dry, belabored. I read that familiarizing yourself with a place makes you less nervous about walking alone through it so this is my strategy, to walk as much as possible. I find the alleys to avoid, which corners I am most likely to be harassed on, the blocks with the best smells. My choreography becomes learned, deviated from only in adventurous moods, bus stops switched regularly (for variety). A woman walking alone is assumed to be lonely and vulnerable. I sometimes feel both, but do my best to manifest a bolder energy into my frame.
I studied old buildings, I once found a small street of abandoned houses whose sidewalks are the width of a bathtub. I brushed past monks in saffron-colored robes. I found a wide breezeway full of old glass, found a stairwell to the ocean, saw the first five feet of twin palm trees painted white to match the house they stretched in front of. Back home, I had been told that friars in San Diego had scattered seeds of yellow flowers through the valley on foot so they could mark their path through the seasons, a trail of gold weaving through the city. A long way to walk.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself and Richard Brautigan entered the house of a witch and saw jars full of flowers in every room, writing “Some of the flowers were stale and some of the flowers were fresh.” Flowers supposedly make you feel better in the morning. The “blahs” are real, say scientists, and having flowers near you helps you get out of bed.
I buy myself flowers when no one else does, regularly. No romantic relationship has survived my stalwart love of solitude. Now keeping flowers and letting them die is just something that I do for myself. The lifespan of a flower is relatively short – two weeks if you’re careful. It almost doesn’t matter how they arrive. I once hit the jackpot when I found three bouquets of dead flowers on a sidewalk in Lincoln Heights. I kept them near my desk, tied upside down to my blinds cord until they began to drop petals all over the floor. They love me, they love me not. I threw them out after four months.
In a study at Harvard, scientists discovered that the sight of flowers improved people’s moods. They handed 147 women a bouquet of flowers and they responded with a “duchenne smile”, which is a smile that engages the majority of the facial muscles. Another study noted that seeing flowers first thing in the morning gave participants a boost of energy that lasted throughout the whole day. “What I find interesting is that by starting the day in a more positive mood, you are likely to transfer those happier feelings to others — it’s what is called mood contagion,” says Dr. Etcoff. A contagion, like allergies. Another study says we like flowers because of their shape and colors. “Not all flowers are symmetrical, but most are.” Pollen was found in the graves of Neanderthals suggesting they lay flowers on their dead. With the exception of some medicinal blossoms, flowers serve no purpose other than an emotional one.
Gold fields carpeted our hills, the Spanish spied them from their ships. Travelers wrote home about the way the colors covered the fields they walked through. Poppies bloomed like weeds. The poppy became the state flower in 1903, Botanist John Thomas Howell wrote that “this colorful plant should not be slighted: cherish it and be ever thankful that so rare a plant is common.” Wildflower expert Robert Minnich writes that “The tragedy is that the poppy is no longer common, to the point that reserves have recently been created to protect it.”The Southern California Flower Market was started by a group of Japanese-American growers in 1912 and when Mr. Mulholland piped in water to swimming pools in Los Angeles a year later, the floral industry boomed. California supplied fresh cut flowers for the majority of the nation for more than fifty years. California’s wildflowers became world famous and flowers are a sign that there is water nearby – a sign of life trembling beneath the surface.
“You sad flower in the sand,” John Fante wrote to Los Angeles. Floriculture relies on irrigation. Mulholland’s funeral was held at the Little Church of Flowers in 1935. In the 1960’s, advances in air transport and commercial floral retailers affected local flower sales and it was no longer common to drive past floral fields in California. Now the poppy and the rest of the wildflowers are still rare but no longer common, and California waits for rain with its dams dry and it’s reservoirs low.
Empty of gold, empty of oil, seeds lay dormant in the land and wait. Our wildflowers have been fading, the season hasn’t burst in decades. But then recent autumn rains dug their fingers into California’s thirsty soil, yanking up yellow flowers, dusting the driest part of our desert in a Super bloom, sifted like fine flour, a rare event that hasn’t happened in ten years according to experts.
And suddenly there are flowers everywhere, from manicured lawns to sidewalk plots, – roses are bursting out from people’s yards, camellias are drooping heavy from bushes, orange waxy kumquats are beading the sidewalk and making the cement sticky. Wisps of jacaranda dot the sidewalks in purple, yellow tidy tips make the highway bloom gold. Wildflowers are yawning open all over California and when they bloom in east Los Angeles county, in Long Beach along the grime of Atlantic Blvd. near my bus stop, near Beautiful California Florist, my mood elevates and sunshine feels less useless.
Municipal flowers, roadside flowers, California poppies, petals thin like tracing paper. Cheeto bags on the stoop, blunt wrappers in the grass joined now by verbenas curling out of gutters, tidy tips along the freeways, penstemons, and buckwheats swaying in wind; jasmine the color of melted butter – I am newly obsessed with going outside.
Sneezeweeds, Baby blue eyes, Mexican sage. It’s a joke that California barely experiences temperature changes, so any incident of weather is monumental. It’s true, seeing flowers shocked me. Electrotherapy of color. Walking in LA county when there’s flowers blooming everywhere feels charmed, meant to be; this is the California people sing about and wax poetic over, not the California with a high crime rate, where traffic plugs the roadways, where a record breaking drought reminds us we live in arid desert.
I knew the flowers would fade as fast as they bloomed. Last week, when I stepped off my bus and crossed the street to my building, I saw that the big pink Ballerina bush was no longer pink and blooming. It was as if its lights had gone out. The bougainvilla are also fading, petals drying out like paper. Jacaranda blossoms throw themselves to the sidewalks, crushed underfoot in a purple gum.
Depression, lassitude. Lantana, Jacaranda. My mood is flat like dry soil. The jasmine scent, now faint. Depression will lift only to cycle back and crush you. Seeds wait under the surface of dirt, under beer bottles, styrofoam cups, in alleyways near blankets and cardboard boxes. Fast food bags filled with trash, blown over by the wind. Petals pile in lines along the curbs mixed with straws and newspapers. Seeds wait, so I wait. Still land can bloom again.
Images Courtesy of Michael Delaney http://www.mmichaell.com/