Saturday, October 24, 2009

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but . . .

Khadijah, a member of my little on-line writing collective, Red Threads, issued a challenge some weeks back, of posting a piece of writing every day for a month to the group. We settled on October. The piece could be long, short—a single word, if that’s all that came. The point was simply to post something every day.

It’s a bit like the photo-a-day project I’m on round 2 of in Flickr: Project 365. But different. The similarity is in focusing on completing the task each day. And this month, I’ve really been enjoying the double challenge. Though when October is over and the writing-a-day goes away, I probably won’t miss it. But I hope I also don’t lapse into no-writing-ever. It’s funny how I allow myself to be motivated by these “challenges,” where nobody on earth really CARES if I follow through—but I do follow through, punctiliously. (Hm, maybe that means I care. Which usually brings a “so what?” from me—who cares if I care? That, clearly, is something I need to examine. Seriously.)

The difference lies in process. With the writing, I usually just let something spill out. I’m not trying to craft or polish. Whatever comes, is what I post. No editing. Raw material. (And I want to appreciate my Red Threads for letting me do that. And on occasion, responding. You’ve been terrific.)

The photo-a-day typically involves several shots. Today, for example, I started out trying to get a close-up of our cat’s collar (pink with silver crescent moons and stars), against the salt-and-pepper of her fur, because she was handy and it was a nice day to be outside and enjoy the sight of her rolling luxuriantly on the dead pine needles, in the newly greening grass; and for good measure I took a couple of pictures looking down on her with my 100mm lens (which makes for an up-close-and-personal shot). Then I went to the Roost and my neighbor wasn’t home, so I took pictures of her roses, which are glorious at the moment (pink-and-yellow, lavender, deep red, delicate rose, and a yellow bud, just thinking about opening). I also took pictures of Branco, her little white dog (his name means white in Portuguese), who was barking, barking, barking furiously at me. Well, not furious: he just wanted a pat and a scritch. Sometimes he allows me to enter through the high squeaky gate in silence, other times he yips and yips—and I pat him and he's all wagging tail and grateful brown eyes—and then I continue on up the drive, and he launches into yipping again. You’d THINK the pat would calm him down. Maybe he’s a little senile. Though I have no idea how old he is. Might be two, which would rule out senility. Just . . . confused? Doing his job (most of the time)?

Anyway, when I got home, I reviewed the pictures (a pleasant ritual this past year: I’m coming up on day 300, next Tuesday), and the only one—out of twelve—worth posting was one of the kitty as seen from above. I deleted five of the shots outright—erased, gone. The other six . . . okay, five of them are going as well. One of the rose pictures (the delicate-rose rose) I can’t quite bear to part with, since it’s a nice enough shot. Just . . . not worth posting. Or is it? Eh, sure; it’s decent—lovely colors, pretty good composition; I’ll post it, despite its 1600 ISO graininess (oops: forgot to check again). I need to be more hard-nosed about editing my photos, and anything not worth posting should be launched into oblivion. But I guess I have two categories: pictures-I’m-proud-of and pictures-I-like-for-whatever-reason. I try to include the former in my Project 365, but sometimes all I get is the latter. And that’s good enough.

It’s similar with writing—except that a thousand raw-material words contain so much more than a picture does, in their formlessness, in their exploration, in their musings and wonderings (and wanderings) and imaginings. A thousand words might well hold five that lead to a provocative essay; or ten, scattered throughout, that generate a poem; or a full sentence that becomes the start of a short story. So I’m thinking of this month’s challenge as a raw-material generator. It’s not journaling, but it is thinking out loud. I’ve identified a few ideas that I might wish to pursue. And I will keep all the words, stick them in a notebook, continue adding to them. When it comes to ideas, imaginings, dreams, self-expression, words are so powerful. Much more so than a straight photograph (which is what I take) could ever be.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What a wonderful world

I am lying on my back on the cool granite of the Yosemite high country. Olmsted Point. I’m bundled up—long underwear, heavy windproof pants, a couple layers of fleece, my light blue down sweater, a woolly hat—but rather than the 20-degree temperatures I’d feared, it’s balmy, in the 40s. Still, it’s comforting to feel snug as I gaze up at the huge indigo sky pierced by stars and that moon floating high overhead, bathing this land of rock and trees in its light. Occasionally cars rumble down the Tioga Pass Road, or up it, their headlights scraping over me, the boulders, the large pine tree I’m photographing—adding a few photons to the light painting I’ve already done up close, giving more color and definition to the tree’s plated trunk, the feathery needles. My shutter is open for fifteen minutes, so I have nothing to do but this: lie on my back, my arms crooked under my head, and gaze at the firmament.

A satellite zips along—a tiny speck of light traveling deliberately, at a steady pace, girdling the earth, this planet, over and over, around and around, allowing us to communicate, to observe, providing us with data that could change our lives. And then there are the airplanes, which blink-blink-blink, red and white, across the sky, San Francisco bound. I imagine the people in their seats, reading or tapping at their laptops or simply sitting, eyes closed, listening through earbuds to Neko Case or Janacek or the Bird—no more the days of being beholden to “Jazz Favorites” and “Classical Interlude.” The flight attendant will be announcing just about now that the captain has started the descent into San Francisco, to please pass cups and trash, and the passengers will begin to rustle with anticipation. All those people, all those stories: perhaps coming home after brokering a tough business deal in London; arriving for the funeral of a black-sheep uncle, the wedding of a favorite niece; starting a well-deserved vacation, having traveled all the way from Helsinki or Tel Aviv.

Me, I’m lying on my back under the stars and a song is running through my head, the medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” sung so sweetly by Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole ( I was listening to it this afternoon as I was driving—creeping—along the narrow, winding Tioga Pass Road in a long line of cars, stop and go, the dense clutch of forest obscuring our view of anything but the bumper in front of us. We’d already spent half an hour stopped, engines off, and I’d settled into the wait reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song and listening to my iPod on low. Two ambulances charged past while we sat there, ten, fifteen minutes apart, no sirens, lights flashing, headed west, out of the park. Or perhaps they were bound for a helipad. Now, as we inched around a bend and the road curved upward, Israel started his song: Somewhere over the rainbow, and the dreams that you dreamed of once in a lullaby . . . I saw more flashing lights and orange vests up ahead, arms waving. Iz now moved beyond the rainbow: I see trees of green and red roses too. I watch them bloom for me and you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. A white Toyota Corolla had plunged off the road, into a tree, hood smashed; its windshield was a field of stars, jagged bursts of light. We all looked. How could we not. Well, I see skies of blue and I see clouds of white. No blood, thank God. The man with his SLOW sign, the ranger in her cruiser, a few travelers standing by a car, its back hatch open, seemed loose, the emergency past. The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, I see friends shaking hands saying, How do you do; they’re really saying I, I love you.

Two people, their day gone very wrong. And hundreds of others caught up, tangentially, momentarily, anonymously, hopefully, in that pair's lives. There but for the grace of God . . . I’m bathed in the moon’s radiance, feeling large and small at once: tiny compared to the stars and the planes and the effort it takes to throw a satellite into the sky, but also of a piece with this chunk of rock and the huge batholith that it is merely the surface of, and of this park called Yosemite, and of the lives of the people up there in the sky checking the seat pocket and down here in their campgrounds sitting around a fire. I wonder what happened to the people in the car—how they veered off the road, whether the airbags deployed, where they are now, whether they’ll be okay. How quickly our lives can change. I’m feeling the wild energy of so many destinies, from stars to human beings, seeping into my body from the burning core of the earth and from the icy black of the universe. I’m thinking of the people I love.

And my camera goes click. And briefly illuminated on the LCD screen is a tree of green, and the trails of stars coursing evenly through an indigo sky: time, life, the immensity of it all, this wonderful world, frozen in a glowing instant.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The kindness of strangers

A short appreciation today for some women I barely know: we do not hang out together, have coffee, share meals; we know only smatterings of one another’s lives. But we talk, daily—or as close to daily as we can—one on one, for seven minutes each. Well, “talk”: one of us talks, the other listens, with a few words of appreciation at the end for the very real person who is laying her life out there, with openness, vulnerability, courage, and trust. To a stranger. We are not confessing. Rather, we are plumbing our depths, of feelings about ourselves and others, what we call our “inherent nature,” and gauging our struggles—where we stumble, and what the next step is once we pick ourselves up. Our struggles may be as small as convincing our partner of the importance of moving dishes from the sink to the dishwasher, or as big as starting the process of divorce. On the listener’s part, there is no judgment, no advice given (though it sometimes sneaks in craftily, because that is what women are in a way trained to do: “help” and “fix”). We are loving witnesses, committed allies; we are also fellow travelers, aware that we are all bound together in the same “stuff” that is this life.

The context for these intimate talks is a group that I joined last spring, that took a hiatus over the summer, and that has been set in motion again the last few weeks. Being a shy sort, one who doesn’t speak freely about feelings, I have found the group challenging, to say the least. But I go, and I try to open my heart to the process—and, more to the point, to the love and acceptance in that room. And curiously enough, that love and acceptance from strangers (though of course, we aren’t really strangers, not anymore) manages to wriggle its way into my own heart, and as a result I have found myself to be more self-loving and self-accepting, more appreciative of my own company.

I was trying to tell a friend about this the other night, and he clearly didn’t get it. Some people I wouldn’t even try to explain it to. (This particular friend I consider an intimate, though I’m reaching the conclusion that that’s just wishful thinking.) There are so many levels of consciousness and awareness. While some people in my life seem well along on this path, I feel very much as if I am toeing my way through the dark, groping for a wall of solidity here (call it understanding), a handhold there (honesty), a roughness underfoot that signals an even set of steps (spiritual strength), a shaft of guiding light (joy). The path itself may be called healing, reintegration, compassion, love. All these abstract qualities, I am taught, are ones that we all embody (though I still have my doubts about serial killers and their ilk); they are qualities that make us, as our mantra goes, precious, enough, and full of worth, qualities that we can, and should, celebrate in ourselves and others.

Anyway, I wanted today simply to appreciate the lovingkindness I am experiencing with these women, and from each of them individually. We are all learning to listen, to feel fully, and to reclaim our wholeness. It’s invigorating, if at times terrifying. But if we didn’t experience the darkness, we would never be able to see the light.

Since I’m trying to include a relevant quote for each posting, here is one from Dennis Elwell (who champions “rational astrology,” apparently) that, although about the universe writ large, captures some of what this process means to me:

“This universe of ours, what is it really? Here we are, centers of consciousness, surrounded by a buzzing confusion which we must try to understand. But we are of the selfsame stuff of the universe—perhaps ultimately a cloud of energy interacting with other clouds of energy—and on that account we are in the role more of participants than observers. We cannot distance ourselves from our ambient, hold it at arm’s length for impartial scrutiny. This fact has been heavily underlined by modern physics since it sets limits to our knowledge. What we experience is not external reality per se but our interaction with it, so that in a very real sense we are constructing our universe from ourselves.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Angels and demons

What is that knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

—D. H. Lawrence

Three of them, huh? However many, they are strange, certainly. Or . . . maybe they’re more strangely familiar: sheltering shadows, hidden pockets of my soul. They are part of me; their strangeness lies in how they tug me away from what I know, what I expect, what I take for granted; how they then invite me to imagine a future—or no: a present—in which I dance with mystery, with uncertainty, with chance, buoyed all the while (I can only hope) by curiosity and an open heart.

The one on the right I know well: her name is Desire, Longing. Passion, when she’s fully realized. She doesn’t answer to a name, but to waves of impulse and joy. What she promises is connection, intimacy. A space where even the familiar shadows, the hidden pockets, are exposed and, dare I say, beautiful. I see her in dolphins porpoising at the bow of a boat, in the intricate patterns at the heart of a red poppy. I see her when I gaze into my lover’s eyes, no walls. It’s the ordinary, but observed close, on its own terms—as, simply, what is. But no: that’s not quite right. My yearning, my longing, is to become that joy of the leaping fish, to become the perfection of the rifled seedpod. I long to become one with my lover, indistinguishable from the world around me, around us. But all I can do, in fact, is taste that joy, that perfection, for an instant, then tuck it away and—be grateful that I have had that moment. That that perfection exists. Just that.

I recognize the angel on the left, too. She is Sadness, a gift of my parents, and borne by my brother and me through our lives, stolidly, solemnly. She may be the gift of generation upon generation of ancestors, I don’t know: my family barely has roots, never mind deep ones; my forebears are unknown to me or, at best, shades, ghosts. But I don’t need to go back in time; the sadness has always been there, tempering the heartbeat of my childhood home, of the homes my brother and I have created. Although sadness is not a desired angel, she is a constant one in this world, a necessary one. Grief, Sorrow. A partner in the dance of birth and death, joy (there she is again) and tragedy, awe and horror, and all that comes between. Without her, I wouldn’t know delight, I wouldn’t have cause for celebration. And so I welcome her; if she knocks, I let her in. And I weep with her, and I allow her to cleanse my eyes, my heart, my soul, and witness anew.

The third angel, the one in the middle—who is she? I’m not sure: I don’t recognize her. She isn’t anger, or regret, or guilt—that much I know. She’s bigger than those, more enveloping. She spreads her cloak and wraps it around even the yearnings and the sadness, giving compassion and comfort. Maybe she is Time. Change. The creeping journey toward death. Bringing gain as well as loss. Satisfaction on top of the cravings, healing to the shatterings. Lessons learned. She teaches me to let go rather than cling tight. She tries to teach me that now is all I have. That, feeling the gentle weight of her hands on my shoulders, I should stop, breathe, and feel the sadness or joy, whichever is present; feel the yearning or the release. And marvel. And be grateful that I am alive, and can continue to welcome the angels, all of them—whether they be three or eighty-three.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Do it too soon

I’ve been feeling stuck. Not unhappy, can’t-get-out-of-bed want-to-hide-under-a-rock stuck. But standing-staring-at-a-signpost-pointing-567-different-directions-unable-to-decide-which-way-to-go stuck. A few weeks ago, I actually chose one of those 567 paths and took a few faltering steps into new terrain.

As I type, I am listening to the hum and whirr of a 17-inch Canon iPF 5100 fine art printer in the process of initializing. It arrived on April 7, on a pallet that was dropped off, thunk, in our driveway. When we tried to lift the 3′ × 4′ box, it had no bottom; so instead of wrestling the oversized container into the back of my SUV (destroying our backs in the process), we found ourselves gazing at an array of long, flat boxes; plastic-wrapped trays and manuals; and a hulking form swaddled in white protective foam adorned with bright orange tape and red attention! tags.

All this was relatively easy to transfer into my car, and then to the Roost—though the printer was still awkwardly big and heavy, and threatened to slither from our grasp on the crabwise shuffle through the gate, down the driveway, and up the stairs. But soon it filled the four-foot banquet table bought special for the purpose. I then liberated it from its foam sheathing and stood back to admire its professional size and look. The paper tray, which now held two foil-wrapped print heads and twelve foil-wrapped ink cartridges, along with the Getting Started manuals (in English, French, and Spanish) and three CDs, I shoved under the table. Then—I turned and fled. And I have barely been back to the Roost since.

It’s not that I’m afraid of the printer—or, rather, of what it represents: being creative, striding off in a new direction, taking a risk. Turning more to photography, in which I have no training, while relegating words—my profession and comfort zone—to personal exploration and play. No, that’s not what holds me back.

What holds me back is my gremlins, who have a nasty habit of muttering under their breath. Although I don’t actually hear the words, the tenor of their message is clear: “You think you have a chance in hell making it as a photographer?” “You don’t have the patience to fine-tune a photograph until it’s right!” “Wait until the critics have a go at you!!!” All this accompanied by derisive laughter. These guys have been with me a long, long time, and they are insidious; invidious too. Downright no good. And—I have to keep reminding myself—they do not exist. They do not exist. They are entirely in my mind. And over that, I have some control. I can guide my thoughts in a positive direction—away from the sneering gremlins.

So as I ponder this new path, I am determined, if nothing else, to prove those gremlins wrong. I won’t ignore them—bless their gnarly hearts, they are only trying to protect me. But I will show them that their concern is misplaced. I may not “make it” as a photographer in the sense of making a living, but I can find joy and satisfaction in making good photos, making good prints, and putting my work out in the world. And I know I can be patient and thorough: my work with words has taught me that. As for critics, I have a lot of friends who appreciate my work. Strangers—well, they can have their opinion. I don’t need to please everyone. Or even anyone. Except myself, in doing the work and finding pleasure in it. Taking risks and learning from the experience.

So this evening I followed the crystal-clear 38-step instructions for initializing the printer: I installed the print heads and the various color-coded ink cartridges, spooled the roll of matte paper, and, with anticipation, pressed the power button. As the machine whirred to life, I felt that I’d been joined in the room by an ally—someone to take my side against the gremlins. A co-creator. Or, in the end, a tool. But certainly not an enemy, something else to do battle with. Though I do anticipate a learning curve as I figure out printer profiles, calibration, and color profiles.

And I thought about the first print I would make on my new printer: something from my bathroom at the roost, taken on a rainy day; quiet, intimate, a bit mysterious. You don’t immediately know what it is, but when you recognize it, it makes you smile. At least, it does me. I am happy to have seen the possibility of this photo, and the subject matter brings back some sweet memories. What could be better?

All this brought to mind a quote I ran across recently, by Barbara Sher: “Doing is a quantum leap from imagining. Thinking about swimming isn’t much like actually getting in the water. Actually getting in the water can take your breath away. The defense force inside of us wants us to be cautious, to stay away from anything as intense as a new kind of action. Its job is to protect us, and it categorically avoids anything resembling danger. But it’s often wrong. Anything worth doing is worth doing too soon.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Indian paintbrush

Originally uploaded by tsallam

I had occasional moments today, on a hike in Garland Park with David, when time stood still and I was right there, in the present, out of body, out of mind. Trying for a sharp capture of this Indian paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia) was one such moment. With a point-and-shoot it was a challenge. But I'm happy with this starburst of crimson.

The whole enthralling experience

It is Easter Sunday, a day of renewal and resurrection for many. Out my window here at my Carmel Valley “Roost”—my home away from home, my creative refuge, my retreat—the day is glowing green, a wisteria vine is exploding with blossoms and bees, and the hills are calling. I look at the world out there, that chaos of life, and am able to see its unity and coherence. Yet I find it difficult to do the same with my own chaos: the thoughts and feelings and desires and dreams that roil about in my head and heart. Just this morning, so much has entered into this self-contained space of mine: the tenets of Congregationalism; foxes on an island off California; amazon’s new policy regarding “adult” books. These things appeal to my intellect; they are interesting—and in the case of the amazon thing, outrageous (if true)—and I am glad to know about them, to engage with their meaning for me personally or for society more generally. Other things, though, hit me squarely in the heart: photos on Facebook of a Search & Rescue mission last night that I missed out on, which bums me out; a conversation with a friend about all those old, deep wounds that are so difficult to heal; sharp disappointment over another friend not getting in touch this week, though I “knew” he wouldn't. And of course, joy is in my heart as well: at the beauty of the day; at hearing by email and phone from several people who I know do care about me; at being able to focus on my steady, strong breath, the blood flowing through my veins, and appreciate the fact that I am healthy and, well, alive.

I know the joy and contentment are there, and yet the pain keeps bubbling up. And . . . it’s okay. The pain is part of me. Some days it’s unnervingly insistent and makes me feel almost shattered. On those days, I need to be extra attentive and allow myself space to simply be: to breathe, in, out; to allow tears, salty and mysterious, to trickle down my cheeks. Today seems to be one of those days. Other days the sorrow pools back within some hollow inside me, and I’m able to fully inhabit the self-confident, positive self I know most people see me as. Some days it’s a bit of both. I am never happy to feel that dark shroud descend upon me. However, after many years of not acknowledging that the sadness was even there, I am beginning to realize that I do not need to consider it an enemy; rather, it can be a wise teacher, and a worthy friend. But only if I listen. Which means letting it in, feeling it as fully as I can, and understanding how it contributes to the unity and wholeness that are uniquely and beautifully me.

A friend sent me this quote this morning. It sparked this musing, and so I will end with it. It's by Eleanor Roosevelt: “I wish with all my heart that every child could be so imbued with a sense of the adventure of life that each change, each readjustment, each surprise—good or bad—that came along would be welcomed as part of the whole enthralling experience.”