Not too many months ago, some friends and I drove along Mulholland Drive at night.
We watched the little lights collect together, and the larger lights of mansions hiding coyly behind hedges.
I remember seeing one house, positioned like a castle on a cliff. It held the prime real estate of the city – looking out over the entirety of Los Angeles. There were people pouring in to a party. The building glowed – lit like Marilyn Monroe, with soft shadows and curves. It was very simple from the outside. Highly mysterious. It even had a carpark, for fifty or so cars.
Who entertains so many, so often, that they have a place for that many guests to park?!
We couldn’t see inside, but our imaginations did. To me, the event was decked out to rival the revelry of Jay Gatsby. We speculated about the owner (“Please let it be Jennifer Lawrence”). We marvelled at the grandiosity, judging it, elevating ourselves in our poverty, accepting a position of higher integrity.
Oh, the riches of a poor city. Oh, the wisdom of fools.
We felt so far away from that expression of LA.
We were on the outside, and it was impossible to get in.
Los Angeles has been my friend. I have fought it bitterly, and I have found myself curled under its arms. It sings in sirens, and it reaches out beyond itself, in a desperate attempt to be free.
Los Angeles is a city in drought. In drought, and in denial of it.
The sky is laced with dust – a yellow filter, not unlike Instagram’s ‘Valencia’, that ushers in excellent sunsets. Dust lines the road, the cars, the windows. The days stretch on in sunlight, the gardens watered in secret, late at night.
I have not known the ‘working’ city of Los Angeles. I haven’t been on set, or under lights, or on red carpets. I have not known the ‘partying’ city of Los Angeles. I haven’t been in beautiful bars or underground gigs and I don’t remember how to drink spirits. At least not the way I did when I was twenty-two. I have not known the ‘violent’ city, the ‘rich’ city or the ‘celebrity’ city. I met something entirely different – entirely unexpected.
I met a city on its knees. I met the warrior. The artist. The pilgrim. The mother.
A city in labour, birthing its integrity.
I met a city that wanted to give, instead of receive.
A city that wore no makeup, that had no car, that grew grapefruits in its back garden, and played the piano when it thought no-one was listening.
A city of missionaries and academics, of students and athletes and stay at home parents.
When I arrived here, I came with an expectation of what it might mean to be an artist in this place. I am leaving corrected.
Los Angeles is in drought. Creatively. Though it should and probably does house the highest percentage of artists in one place, the city is fighting for inspiration. The idol of money sits high, as gatekeeper. If it cannot be sold, why make it? Here, the goal is to create what they are already buying. Be what they are already casting. Write what they are wanting to read, or watch. Follow the rules. Follow the leaders.
But in this surrender to the marketplace, the temple is desecrated.
Art is authentic expression. Art is honest before all other things. Art does not abide.
The artists have gathered here to buy and sell, but where are the worshippers? Where are the offerings, created for the process, and not the reward? Where is the divine, in all of this beauty?
Artists don’t just win, you see. They lose. Their sacrifice – their loss – is their gift to the world. ‘I have experienced this, in all of its glory and all its ugliness, so I may express it as a gift to you, and you may experience it too.’ We set ourselves on fire, and we invite humanity to watch us burn. Lights against the sky. Offerings.
We don’t have to be loved. We don’t have to be chosen.
I went on a journey with that. A dear friend had once warned me about the ‘LA Days’. I was challenged – in classes, meetings, audition rooms, rehearsals, performances and pitches. My creative identify would solidify, then the minute it was attacked, mysteriously disappear. I cannot tell you how many times I drove home in tears, convinced that my choices were naive and my imagination immature. I have felt inadequate, and I have felt excessive. I have felt perfect, too, and have still not been considered. I would come to the secret place, wrecked, and ready to quit. Then, every time, as I hit against the bottom of my pride, something in me would rise again. Perhaps a colleague would contact me with encouragement, an idea would burst through, or God Himself would whisper His intentions in my ear – and I could pick myself up and keep going.
In this city I have been tested. I have fought to find out what it is I want to write, what it might mean to act with truth. My processes have shifted, my perspectives challenged. It has not looked like a run to fame, or a miraculous fast track to favour and status. It has looked like hard work. I have been forced to take the stairs, and I do not regret it.
I have been humbled, on this soil. My memories in this place are clashing moments of joy and accomplishment, of failure and shame. But I was not alone. The people around me were neck-deep in the same battle – and I noticed that some dealt with it differently to others.
I began to find people – artists – willing to lose. Willing to be rejected. Willing to fight for their expression.
I have watched their dedication to their crafts, and I have watched audiences be profoundly affected by what they have gifted. I have watched them bring living water to a city in drought.
That is what our practice does – it subverts and defies. It realigns. It does not bend to accommodate anything but truth.
Those that kneel before the art of creation, cannot be touched by money’s rejection.
Only one of these altars is alive.
It is water – it washes people and cities – it refreshes and cleanses and rehydrates.
When it rains in Los Angeles, people go crazy. The air grows sharp, and the mountains look three-dimensional for the first time. The yellow becomes green. The never ending brightness shivers for a moment, and reconsiders itself.
Los Angeles has changed me. I have rested in the silence. I have smelled, tasted and seen – often for the first time. I have stopped to live in the gaps between the letters.
I have been blessed with questions that don’t have answers. With expenses that have no source of income. With roads that don’t go anywhere.
These are glorious.
I am afraid to come home, in some ways. I am afraid of returning to the things I left before, afraid of leaving the things I have found since I came here. I am afraid that what I have uncovered might be an illusion, or an air only breathable in a city such as this. That it cannot be carried in my heart, or my pocket, or my head.
I am afraid of the tension, though I need it.
I am still afraid of losing.
I am still afraid of setting myself on fire – burning out, until I am only ashes.
A few days ago, I went to the mansion – the one sitting highest on Mulholland Drive.
I drove into the clouds, in peak hour traffic.
I circled up. High above the faux fog line, past the concrete spaghetti. All the way into Bel Air.
I followed Mulholland around, and I pulled up the driveway, passing the trees that hid the property from view.
I parked in the carpark, and I saw the city from a height I could not imagine.
I walked in the front door, and I introduced myself.
That building was not a house, but a church.
A humble, open-armed church, at that. A church full of children, full of rooms, full of space, and full of grace.
I would never have known that, except for an extraordinary set of coincidences that brought me into an office in that building. It looked out over the entirety of Los Angeles, draped with yellow fog.
In that office, I sat across from an incredible man and an incredible woman, and we spoke. We spoke about tension. About the pull between two worlds, between opposing ideas, between truth and grace. We spoke about suffering and about healing.
At one point, the man I was speaking with looked at me.
‘Do you know what an antinome is, Anna?’
‘No’, I said.
‘An antinome can be used to describe the physics of light.’
This man presented to me the logical paradox that light is both a particle and a wave. They are different, but they co-exist. It is a conundrum, a great mystery.
‘It makes no sense, it is contradictory in its duality. But it is true.
Isn’t it fitting, then, that God is light? That you are the light of the world?’
Those words made me very still.
I drove away, and it was only then that I recognised the tiny carpark off to the side. I remembered the night drive, with our mocking fantasies of champagne and celebrities. I realised the buildings were one and the same.
I drove back down the hill, the dusty mountains either side of me, hedging me in, lining my descent.
The fire burns in my chest. The water flows from my fingers.
“…You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.
If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand.
Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine!’
Matthew 5:14-15 (MSG)