Every morning I'd lace up my running shoes and hit the UCLA track; on shoot days, I'd run in the dark. For a city that often stinks to high heaven by midday (as early as 10am in the summer), Los Angeles has a remarkably fresh smell in the early morning that's dewy and invigorating and full of promise and at that point in my life, promise was something I needed a whole lot of. On paper, I looked unbeatable: good salary, high-profile copywriting gig, nice condo in a happening section of town. But walking around, I was miserable. I hated my job, I hated my spinelessness in refusing to jettison it and most of all, I hated myself for what I saw as every misstep I'd taken to bring myself to this pretty pass.
But on this particular trip to L.A., I got lucky. It was an easy shoot, as shoots go, happy clients, cushy schedule, no other huge projects to work on long-distance. So I got two things I never really got back at home in my miserable, high-flying life: time and distance. On those early-morning runs, breathing that air and watching all those students chug around the track (how young I thought they were, me, in my aged mid-20's) things started to seem possible. What things, I didn't know; I just knew I wanted some of them. Freedom. Warm weather. A life that afforded me the time to sit and write in coffee shops in the middle of the day.
And then one night, begging off yet another pricey production company dinner, I snuck off to a Westwood theater with a falafel sandwich in my backpack. And as I sat in the dark, watching the trailers roll, it hit me: I was happy. Really and truly happy for the first time in I-didn't-know-how long a time. Because not only did I feel that sense of promise as I had on the run, but I realized I felt at home in that almost empty theater, eating my greasy dinner by myself. I knew I didn't even know what it was I wanted, some kind of job in the movies, some kind of life in L.A., some kind of living situation that got me out to the movies and eating more falafel, but I knew that there was something other than the life I was leading that I did want, and that if I held that thought long and hard (or loosely) enough, it would come to me.
Almost twenty years and many, many steps (and missteps...and backsteps) later, I have that life. For dietary reasons, it does not, alas, include falafel. For that matter, while I certainly could, I rarely get to the movies or that coffee shop for mid-afternoon java and writing. But I am no longer filled with that painful, inchoate longing of old: it's been replaced by a quiet, abiding sort of happiness.
I still dream of change in big chunks but I've also accepted that real change seldom comes that way. The old Hollywood line about the overnight success that was ten years in the making is absolutely true. The good news is that the other old saw, the one about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, is also true. Only sometimes, the step is stopping to smell a morning breeze off the ocean or to glance at a book that falls off the shelf into one's lap or to risk smiling at a stranger. Because the ray of light can come from anywhere.
Even the back of a dark theater, with the scent of falafel wafting up from a greasy paper bag.