I love, love, love shooting film. One has to slow down and contemplate the light, meter here and there, think in two dimensions, adjust the tripod. It is slow and meditative for me, in part because the equipment is so unwieldy, in part because the film so expensive. Each frame matters.
But this image was not shot on film. In fact, I’m lucky it exists at all.
Here’s the deal.
When I am with the spouse and kids, there is never a good time to take a photograph. I’ve missed many, many shots in the interest of “making good time,” catering to emergency bathroom and snack needs, or these days, trying to avoid the tween’s biting impatience.
My family will probably disagree–and for good reason. In truth, they have stopped and waited innumerable times for me to dig out my phone or a point-and-shoot. I take a ridiculous number of crappy snapshots on a daily basis, but the resulting images feel more like visual markers than like “real photographs.” Some are interesting, or serve to jog the memory, but most of them are jpeg trash. I save them anyway.
On the morning pictured, we were supposed to have hit the road an hour earlier. It had taken longer than expected to pack and leave our lodging, which was probably my fault. Two minutes into the drive, we had to stop and return Red Box movies. Five minutes later, we had to stop again to get gas and dig snacks out of a bag buried in the back. Finally, we were rolling. Everyone was a bit cross–and more than ready to get a few miles under the belt–when I saw the most amazing light coming over the lake and snow. I turned to my beleaguered family and smiled weakly. “So. I…uh…need to pull over for a sec.”
Sadly, I didn’t have my real camera along, but I grabbed the point and shoot and got out of the car. I slowed down for two minutes and really looked. I futzed a little with the framing and exposure. I walked closer, forgetting for a moment that there were three grumpy people back in the car.
It may not be the best possible photo, but it makes me very, very happy. In the midst of the manic, chaotic snarl of everyday finagling, it is possible to breathe and see and be in the present. And even if it’s just for two short minutes, it can be grand.
I was worn thin from an epic day at work. Chilled, tired, and hungry, my couch was calling.
Unfortunately, in order to sit on it, I first had to conquer the Bay Bridge during Friday night rush hour traffic. For added excitement, it was the first rainy day of the season, which is typically when everyone spontaneously forgets how to operate a moving vehicle. I really, really did not want to make the drive.
I sat in the car, listening to the rain and to some extremely sad songs. As I was following the lyrics in the semi-darkness, I began to notice the rain falling over the words. Then, after a minute or two, the wipers would cut across the page, leaving a blazing trail of light.
I sat and watched for eons. No doubt the folks in the neighborhood thought I was on some sort of stake-out.
This was a shot that needed a tripod and a decent camera–and FILM, for crying out loud–but I was smushed into the driver’s seat and all I had was my phone. I took the photograph anyway. It can serve as a visual reminder:
In the midst of just about any moment–no matter how stressful, or annoying, or banal–there is often something amazing right in front of my face.
The photographs I chose to include for “The Unexpected” challenge are ones I took to document a science project for my education blog. I was simply trying to capture the procedural steps, but ended up being mesmerized by dry ice and everything about it. Like sublimation, for example:
Or, if you add dish soap and water, the way the potion bubbles for hours.
But the best surprise of all occurred when I left food coloring, soap, and dry ice in a pyrex measuring cup in the sink for a couple of hours…and it grew an ice cave.
A note from Beret: I wrote the preceding piece in response to a photo prompt posted on 100 word story. They post a new prompt each month…plus it’s chock full of amazing 100-word stories, as you might imagine.
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra
FYI: This post is not really about the book.
I read it, though. I even saw the movie. I acted all impressed, and I suppose I thought I was. Despite all the raving, however, and despite Milan Kundera’s remarkable portrait of Czech society during a Seminal Historical Period, the story I read was about one man’s shameless infidelity and his meek and accommodating wife.
What I love is the title. Whatever the author meant by it, those five words distill the magic and misery of being a grown up: the unbearable lightness of being.
Every time that phrase surfaces, I imagine shifting, amorphous shapes, rendered almost completely unintelligible due to some blinding backlighting. It’s as if I am emerging from Plato’s cave for the very first time, or–rather less grandly–as if I am staring into the setting sun through a filthy windshield. No matter how hard I try to focus or shield my eyes, I cannot make out what I am hurtling toward.
No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to believe that eventually we’ll know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what it all means. We’ll feel Grown Up, and life will feel defined. It’s a grand fallacy we buy, and oh, how alluring.
By my early twenties, I was already itching to feel grown, to know who and what I was becoming. I needed to figure it all out, because I wasn’t handling the gray area very well.
Here’s the problem: it’s all gray area. It’s all undefined, and not just when we’re 23.
When things seem to be black and white, it’s a cognitive short cut, a decision to see the world that way. While we may not determine our material circumstances, we do create our interpretations of them, and forge theories about ourselves and our lives. We need to believe things are clearly defined now and then in order to plow ahead with enthusiasm.
I once had a long talk with my sister about marriage. I wanted to know how she knew it was the right decision; how she knew that this was the right guy. She admitted that there was no such thing as 100% certainty, but once you married, you no longer had to continually ask yourself: is this the right person? You started from the idea that it was, and figured out how to handle whatever was coming your way from that vantage point.
Of course perspectives evolve and change, but if we don’t adopt one, we can’t focus in any direction. We lose traction and go nowhere at all. Contrary to how it may appear, choosing a direction isn’t limiting, it’s what makes movement possible. When I allow myself to wallow in the gray area, I limit myself. When I wonder, “Am I really a writer?” I waste a lot of time and energy on this question, instead of simply saying, “I am writing. How can I continue in this direction?”
In the interest of full disclosure, my sister got a divorce. Still, I don’t think that negates the power of what she was saying. Picking a direction only means that we are more likely to get somewhere, it doesn’t guarantee that we will.
September 11, 2001 is an extreme example. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the collective mood had adjusted accordingly. Moments later, when the sky was engulfed in a fog, when it was raining detritus, and fear swallowed the streets, people could not process what was happening. Part of the shock was having to acknowledge the gray area, the great unknown that is life. On that deceptively sunny day, people thought they could see where they were going; they believed that they were headed to work, when actually they were passing through a portal to hell.
This is not a message of doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, we are not always teetering on the brink of an abyss. We just don’t know exactly where we are going. We can’t control other people and events. To be honest, we can’t even control our own actions sometimes. The best we can do is to figure out what and who give us joy, what values and issues are important to us, and how we can contribute to make the world a better place. Then, we can surround ourselves with those people, work on those projects, and head in that direction. But we need to do this while being open to uncertainty. We need to be flexible enough to learn from our mistakes and the changing world around us.
The good news is, when the cracks become visible, when our current perspective is shattered, we can sift through the pieces to make a new place from which to stand, a new perspective that is just as true. It just takes a while to make a new map and start to trust the road.
A friend called me one night not long ago, completely agitated, to ask me, “Who are all those people, smiling and walking down the street like they know what they’re doing?”
Those people are you and I, my friend, on a day when things seem clear.
I moved to New York when I graduated from college, and was immediately befriended by someone desperate to convert me. The odd thing was, I enjoyed her company.
I loved going on outings with her, even when she brought her posse of actual converts. We went ice skating; we went to the movies; we discussed being first-year teachers. She had many wise words to share.
She told me that the secret to overall mental health was as follows:
1) regular exercise
2) a relationship with nature
3) a relationship with the spiritual
And, despite her personal beliefs, she left number three for me to define for myself.
Since then, I have moved to the West Coast, but her words still echo in my ears. I was therefore pleased to find my version of a mental health homerun on Mount Davidson. Whenever possible, I would huff to the top and visit what I began to call my tree.
My tree had been dead for a long time, and that made it all the more striking.
Under its branches, my perspective would suddenly change, both literally and figuratively. It was the place to go whenever tired, or frustrated, or stuck, or giddy, or thoughtful, or restless.
It was not uncommon for me to visit that tree two or three times a week, regardless of wind and weather. I would even wander up in the pouring rain, rubber boots sucking at the mud, dragging me into it. On those days, even the dogwalkers left me alone with my tree.
Though a 103-foot cross loomed behind at the very tip top of the mount, my sanctuary stood at the tree, and I loved it there.
So did a particular red-tailed hawk, often spotted clutching a top branch, and eyeing me with the same cool gaze he turned to the rest of the world.
Then…a month or two ago, we had a windstorm that ripped my beloved tree off its feet.
I didn’t know until I reached the top and saw it lying on its side, and I was completely unprepared for the sorrow I felt over a piece of vegetation.
The hawk has moved on, but the tree is still there, lying listless on a dusty patch.
This is the story of abandoning my family for two and a half weeks one summer to do something ridiculously selfish and wonderful. It is also about gelato, meltdowns, memory, and déjà vu. Have I mentioned that already?
Here’s how it started. A photography professor of mine leaned across the aisle during a lecture. She told me that she was taking a group of students to Italy during the summer. “You should come,” she said.
I laughed a little hysterically, to the point where the exchange became awkward, and we tuned back to the lecture.
Up until then, I’d only slept away from my four-year-old two nights of her entire little life, and those were spent on the floor of a friend’s house a couple blocks away–clutching my phone all night, just in case. And I’d never been away from my two-year-old. I had to lay down with her for an hour or two every night to get her to settle and go to sleep. Though I had weaned her at 18 months, she had taken to digging in my belly button as a replacement soothing mechanism. She picked at me with her tiny talons until I bled. Scar tissue, it turns out, is surprisingly sensitive, but I wasn’t sure how to wean a child from belly-digging.
There are probably a few people reading this that will roll their eyes and mutter in that superior way about sleep training. In my defense, I did try it with the first child. After several unsuccessful attempts on my own, after reading a pile of helpful books, I finally hired a sleep consultant, and tried again. My child cried and cried and cried and cried. She did not let up for naps; she did not let up for nights. She would doze off occasionally, only to wake up ten minutes later and start again. I let her cry and cry until there was a hole in my heart the size of Saskatchewan. So after THIRTY DAYS, I gave up. I didn’t even bother to try with kid #2. Now, how was I going to leave my spouse alone with such a mess?
With all of this in mind, I mentioned the Italy trip to my husband, so he could have a good laugh as well.
“Maybe you should go,” he said.
Best not to ask twice.
Strangely, despite the enormity of the impending separation, I didn’t freak out right away. I had childcare issues to resolve, packing crises, film and equipment to procure, and a research paper due upon departure. I worried about all of that instead.
Then I got on the plane…and cried for a couple of hours straight. Not demure little teardrops, either, but swollen, hiccoughing, snotty, sobbing. My apologies to the bewildered man seated beside me. Eventually regaining composure, I spent the rest of the flight listening to language lessons and, undoubtedly, murmuring along with the patient Italian lady in my headphones. Again, apologies.
The first couple of days on the ground were a blur of disoriented jet lag, a breathless march from church after church to museum after museum. Honestly, all I really remember about Florence is the gelato. Limone. Pesca. Caffè. Cioccolato. Shop after shop, fresh fruit piled high atop the frozen tubs, a little melty on the sides from the summer heat. In between scoops, I was having an out of body experience with some really fabulous twenty-year-olds. I was completely untethered.
On day four, we headed off to a monastery in Tuscany, where the landscape did something wholly unexpected: it became familiar.
I had already seen this place, on coffee tables, in ads, in my dreams. It looked exactly like it was supposed to look, and I was unable to see it as a foreign place. Even as I was wandering this countryside for the first time, it was already a memory, part of the landscape of my psyche.
For days, I couldn’t make a picture because all of the photographs had already been made; making another would be superfluous. I focused on the long, lazy dinners–completely unknown to the parents of small children–the carafes of house wine, the late night walks filled with fireflies, frogs, and stars. I focused on the warm camaraderie of young strangers, who asked questions such as, “What is childbirth like?” “What are your irrational fears?” “Who do you secretly, shamefully lust after?” Or, “If you had to eat someone here, who would it be?” Those questions don’t often come up at pre-school potlucks. It felt so good to contemplate anything besides bowel movements, discipline, and sleep deprivation.
Since I would never forgive myself if I went home empty camera’d, I figured it was time to shoot something. And because I couldn’t make a new picture of the landscape, I tried instead to make pictures that looked like what I could see in my head. I attempted to capture on film my memories that were not really memories, that were not really mine.
After I returned to the States, I stumbled upon a passage that put this sensation into words:
“The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects: the house, the sky, the maple trees. Even that day, there on the porch…it had the quality of a memory…” excerpted from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
A very belated thank you to those of you who made that trip possible. I had a strange and wonderful time.