The Refinery

The Refinery

It stands on the edge of the 405. A steel eyesore. Smokestacks aimed at the sky spilling clouds of pollutants into the atmosphere for the benefit of millions of fuel-fed machines. A mess of metal platforms and stairways and cages and fences with a giant American flag slapped on the front, facing the freeway for the viewing pleasure of thousands of daily commuters. Environmental activists and public health groups frown at it in disgust, protesting the impact on the air and the well being of the community. And every time it comes into view, it comforts me.

The orange lights flicker against the night sky much like the flames that sometimes hiss from the towers, winking at me – reminding me I don’t have far to go.

When I was a little girl in the backseat, I pressed my head against the cool glass, searching the darkness for falling stars. When the lights came into view, I was captivated. I kept it in my sight until the road turned.

Even now, as we approach the eyesore I let my kids know home isn’t much farther. No matter the distance we’ve traveled, we can breathe easy now. We’re in the home stretch. And I watch in my rear view mirror as the refinery fades into the distance.

It calls to me. Every time. Hundreds of trips along the 405 and it pulls me in. I can’t stop staring.

I used to think it was just a landmark. But the overwhelming calm that comes over me in the presence of the metal behemoth has me thinking maybe there’s something more hidden inside the tangled steel tubes that I’m meant to see.

It’s strange being drawn to something that’s considered so unsightly. To be calmed by and oddly pulled to this massive metal and concrete structure in a way that is difficult to describe.

What is it about that refinery? Inside, crude oil is pumped through pipes, processed  through distillation, vacuum, and Fluid Catalytic Cracking units – blended and treated and refined into a perfect formula that is the life force of fuel-powered machines that are the means of survival for millions of people. It takes in the raw, the unusable, the crude, the unfit, and it transforms it into life-giving liquid-gold. Sure, there’s a lot of disgusting things in there – and it puts a lot of disgusting things out into the world. But with a lot of work and a little refinement, it creates something better.

Maybe that’s the parallel. Maybe it’s a visual reminder that no matter what kind of toxic load I’m given, I can process it and create something of value. Something usable. And it is a process. Sometimes I have to spew nastiness into the atmosphere. Sometimes I have to dig through the sludge. Sometimes my flames burn hot and my pollution pisses off my community. But it’s necessary to create something better, something life-sustaining.

I’m not perfect. Nothing ever is. But I’m going through the process and I’m in the home stretch. And that’s pretty comforting.

Rough Drafts: On Life and Writing

Rough DraftsSome people write more during times of turmoil. This past year has been one of the most challenging in my life, but I pushed my personal writing to the bottom of my list of priorities. I made a few attempts, but every time I sat down to pour out my thoughts I vomited words onto blank pages. I spat out incoherent sentences, incomplete thoughts, and lacked any ability to maintain organization and focus. And it disgusted me. How dare I write when all that comes out is complete shit. But isn’t that the beauty of writing? That’s why we call them rough drafts. You put it all out there, and later you come back and edit, delete, tighten, and organize. Life isn’t that way. You can’t go back to the manuscript of your life and rewrite entire chapters. You can’t take out the mistakes and make it pretty. You can’t move around paragraphs to make it flow. You can’t change your characters or their circumstances or their choices.

I began writing at a young age. I wrote letters to friends and boys. I poured everything onto the pages of journals. I scribbled poetry on the corners of class worksheets and filled spiral bound notebooks with sadness and heartache that only a teenage girl could understand. Sometimes there were stories of love and happiness and glimmers of hope. But mostly it was dark. And I’m OK with that, because writing gave me a way to productively express what I was feeling. Writing was the only place I expressed myself well. It was the only positive expression of myself, even when it expressed sadness and pain. Even today, as a grown-ass woman, I speak much more eloquently on the page. The words that come out of my mouth are often awkward ramblings and you just can’t edit that.

Poetry was my first love. I wrote constantly. Most of my poems started with a sentence that I’d write in the margins of my notebook while I was supposed to be taking notes about algebra or the renaissance. I hated the renaissance. And algebra. I loved history, but studying the renaissance was one of the most boring classroom experiences of my life. Today I find it really quite fascinating, but my educators did that period of time no justice. Anyway, that sentence would morph into something more, and I’d spend my nights at my desk in my room building on these sentences. I’d read dictionaries and thesauruses to help me add new thoughts and turn average words into better, more descriptive terms. I moved sentences around, added new words, built better rhymes. Sometimes I erased everything and started over again. I ripped up entire pages and burned them over the candles that lined my desk. I polished every phrase and poured my heart into getting just the right flow. I took those rough drafts and turned them into perfect poetry. Those poems were the only things I had any real control over. Everything else was a mess. So those words – they had to be perfection. And that’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it? It’s not finished until you say so. It’s never really set in stone because you can go back and change it. You can erase your mistakes or take out those awkward sentences and make it better.

But life…life isn’t that way. They say your life is a book, but it’s not really, because you can’t make those crucial edits. You can’t throw out entire chapters that sucked and start fresh. The manuscript of life is permanent. It’s one giant rough draft full of incoherent sentences and glaring mistakes with some really genius shit thrown in from time to time. The best you can do is learn from the mistakes you made in previous chapters and hope like hell that the next chapter is better. That you don’t slip back into old habits or get lazy or miss out on an opportunity to add some sparkle. Sometimes we wish we could go back and delete the scenes that make us cringe, make our characters stronger, hold on instead of letting go, or let go instead of holding on. But our rough draft is the foundation of our being that helps us improve and grow. I know what changes I would make to my rough draft, but I can’t change it, so I’m doing my best to learn from it. Hopefully that will be reflected in both my life and my writing. I won’t burn this rough draft. Rough drafts are worth keeping, because even if you never have the chance to edit the beginning, you can make the ending profoundly better.