Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Driftwood: A Life in Fragments

Absence

My first early retirement from life occurred when I was 22. I have always done a lot of living inside my head, and my college years added a particularly intense outside my head ingredient to the prematurely, precociously and presciently bleak mixture of public and private hopelessness I had been cooking up since I was 10. Then, as a graduation gift, my grandmother died, and I spent my first post-graduate year processing a loss that gave way to an absence never to be filled. But at least it gave me a societally acceptable period of not being expected to figure out, much less get started on, what was to become of me.

 Led to Believe

As the Monty Python character claiming to have been turned into a newt by an alleged witch once admitted, it got better. It took three years, but eventually I emerged from my self-incarceration and took a part time job in a small library, which then led to a full time job in a large museum, and by the time I was 30 I was leading a life that included all the things I had been led to believe life was about: a place to go every day, work to do, friends whose company I enjoyed, and sharing my home and myself with a good man who loved me enough to ask me to marry him. I went from living as deeply inside my head as a person can retreat, to living as far outside as anyone dares venture. 
 
True to Myself

Which was the problem. I became unrecognizable to myself. One by one, I came to question and challenge and eventually reject all the things that had contributed to construct what I presumed to be happiness because it looked just like the picture next to the definition. I found myself out the other side without a clue where to go next. Only this time, it didn’t get better. Being true to myself reaped no such rewards as denying, betraying and falsifying myself. And that has pretty much been the story ever since. The settings have changed, and the cast of characters, and the plot lines, and I am not exactly sure how I wasted whole years only half alive, and more recently endured yet another devastating relationship based on compromise, resignation and abnegation of self, but here I am, some thirty years later, feeling 22 again.

Mom and I

Back then, my Mom and I mourned her mother’s loss together. It suited us both to limit contact with the world outside, to seek solace in books and writing and midnight snacks, the familiar safe comforts of home and our own inner worlds. I wish I had known then that it would turn out not to be a brief hiatus, but who I am and always will be. It wasn’t me that needed changing, but my way of shaping the world around me. And since no one told me there were any other options but fully immerse or fully withdraw, I tried each to the exclusion of the other, alternately, repeatedly, to no avail, for decades.  My mother chose full withdrawal, ongoing, and ingoing, further and further until her last years when her body, mind and spirit all retreated to some deep inner place leaving little for the world outside. And then, when there was almost nothing left, suddenly there was nothing at all, except another loss to process, another absence never to be filled.   And the creeping suspicion that a life made up of what’s missing cannot stand.
 
Long Walks Alone

Some days it feels as if I may as well be that same 22-year-old who only left the house to go down to the Strand to prowl the stacks and barely made eye contact with other humans, who spent years taking long walks alone and reading big books and endlessly delaying any declaration of what I intended to do with my life or myself. As it is now, my life was on hold then, an elaborate and functional structure of distractions and stalling techniques. But unlike today, I wasn’t lost or frustrated, because I wasn’t trying to go anywhere or do anything. And unlike today, I wasn’t completely alone. 

Hybrid Approach

These days, I am. These days I know the world can’t and shouldn’t be entirely ignored. I’ve had to adopt a hybrid approach to living to survive, and on the days I am not the timeless ancient hermit I should have accepted as a very large, in truth the very largest, part of my true identity long ago, I am the social creature who has learned more than enough of the ways of the world to navigate them effortlessly, like a shark cutting through water without leaving a ripple. I have encounters and experiences in which I am fully immersed, and I continue on. The only difference between me and the shark is that things actually stick to the shark, living things, any things. I seem to shake everything off. Or everything shakes me off. I spend time with people. And I spend time alone. I’m pretty good at both, and fear or resist neither. And that’s an improvement. Of sorts. I don’t intend to be needing one anytime soon, but fearless and non-resisting is not such a bad epitaph.

Hopelessness

Back in my first early retirement, one of the creative projects I undertook, because nothing fills an empty life of self-imposed solitary confinement like a creative project, was writing an autobiographical novel. I didn’t have very much personal history to relate, so instead I looked into a future imagined as a continuation of my current state, and appropriated quotes from all the books I was reading to support and enrich my own musings on the public and private human hopelessness of it all. The novel was called “Driftwood: A Life in Fragments” and followed its Dostoevskian narrator from her early realization of her own uselessness to a time when she has outlived even that, outlived everything, with even death eluding her when it would be most welcome, and in fact, the only meaningful thing that can be hoped to happen to her, ironically, the one thing that will make her feel she is alive at all. 

 What Happens Next
  
When I went looking for this novel in progress, it wasn’t where I remembered last seeing it, and honestly, I didn’t look that hard. Maybe it’s time to write a whole new autobiography. Or at least I think I’ll keep the main character exactly as she is, and take her story, with all her immersions and withdrawals, with no changes, right up to now. It’s what happens next I need to rethink. 

All photographs taken by me on yesterday’s hike along the D &H Rail Trail - because some things that never change never should.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

When Words Fail Me


 …is this week’s theme prompt on Luminous Traces Collective. It also prompted me to check this space and discover that I had not posted a new post in almost 6 weeks, which might be more of a case of me failing words, or at least doing a disservice to the word side of the twin tigers this blog was created to serve.


I confess, I haven’t had much to write about here. I have, however, been creating a lot of images, between the weekly LT theme shoots, and the twice weekly shoots I have been doing for The Vermont Farmers Market, from which I am taking my usual summer break as a vendor. This frees me up to be a roving documenter of everything I used to be too busy behind my own table of wares to enjoy and capture. If you want to see some really cool photos of fruits and vegetables and the people who provide them to my community, check out the VFM Facebook page.


But back to my wordlessness. Maybe I have only so much creative energy to give. It’s happened before that one of my passionate pursuits languishes while I attend to another. Or maybe it’s not about quantity of attention but quality – or variety. I’ve started to think visually by default. The spark of an idea or emotion that once ignited a poem or post now bypasses that unlit heap of language and goes right for the visual kindling. I used to grab my pen and write about whatever urgent subject matter refused to leave me alone. Just try to stop me. I never left the house without pen and paper. Now I have some sort of camera with me at all times, and whatever I’m thinking or feeling informs and infiltrates whatever I am photographing.


But I owe this space and its small but select and much appreciated following some kind of update. So here it is, a month late. I still haven’t found the ideal job or the love of my life, or fully reclaimed my former fitness of body, brightness of mind, or lightness of heart. Progress has been slow or lacking in all areas of life, which may be part of why I haven’t been around lately. When days are all the same, time both drags and slips away. When there’s no good news, or even promising prospects to report, I fall silent. Consider yourselves spared my mopes, which have finally become so redundant as to not even inspire – or deserve – being written about.


But I’m still here. Still writing about not writing. Maybe my words and I have not failed each other after all.
  

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Film


Two weeks ago I shot film in my beloved and most photogenic NYC for the first time in far too long. My old allegedly repaired Pentax K1000 played me false and jammed halfway through its first and only roll, and try as I might to continue advancing film clearly – audibly - being shredded at every turn of the manual crank, I had to give up and let it go. The old boy is now officially retired and will be kept as an artifact on the order of other relics of the past I can neither deny nor rely upon, but which in their current form are useless and unrewarding, much like my love life.


My Holga 120N, on the other hand, literal piece of junk that it is, 100% barely held together plastic and making no promises, managed to record 12 frames of absolutely indeterminate quality, and not eat the film alive in the process. Hey, when you are accustomed to nothing, or less, you take what you can as small blessings, and rejoice therein. See reference to love life, above.


Parallels to my love life implicit and not to be reiterated further, I love my Holga. I love that its lack of predictability and low maintenance frees both of us from any responsibility for outcomes. It makes waiting for the results both more exciting, and less stressful, full of mystery and magic, and easily managed if they prove unsatisfactory, because hey, what can you expect from an overgrown Pez dispenser pretending it’s a camera? It’s one of those most rare circumstances in my life, the win-win, as elusive and hunted and stunningly beautiful to witness as a snow leopard.


Speaking of rare, photo shops that develop true black and white film have become moreso in recent years. Here in Vermont, my only local options have been to send away shot film to a shop that in turn, turns out, was also sending it away.  Cutting out the middleman, I now go directly to the source – the makers of the very film I prefer to use, Ilford.  I don’t mind at all verging on a testimonial for Ilford when I say that they rock. Prepaid mailers get my rolls to them out west and back to me processed in under a week. It’s a long week, yes, but I have learned patience in these matters as in so many others. 
 

Shooting film is all about patience, resilience and humility, so why should the results be any less so? It’s about being in the right place and waiting the shot out. It’s the opposite of digital shooting, which is more of a show up, shoot first, ask questions later affair. There is always so much to choose from, and erasure costs nothing in terms of personal investment or materials cost. It just feels more arrogant and less serious, as if less were at stake. I know film shooters who may as well be shooting digital. Hundreds of frames and a long sorting process from proof sheets populated with unsalvageable images that really didn’t need to be committed to film. For my part, I like to make use of the pressure of making each shot count, as if it were my one and only shot and I should be grateful for the chance. In fact, if some shoot film as if it were digital, I tend to shoot digital as if it were film, waiting the shot, making it count. In both cases, I take way more shots in my head than I commit to film or file. Every hesitation I am restrained and discerning enough to risk proves itself later, when I have a relatively manageable pool from which to choose my keepers, which happily usually outnumber the delete button victims.


The shots I don’t take are every bit as important as the ones I do. They are how I get to those keepers. I see this more obviously played out with digital because it happens in real time. So often it’s the very last shot I take that turns out to be the one I envisioned, the one I was literally shooting for. By the time I get a roll of film back, I’ve already mentally deleted all the shots I mentally took between the real ones. This is even more the case with Holga, which only allows a dozen chances to get it right. For every shot on the roll returned to me today, the best of which are included in this post, there were dozens I didn’t take, ones I will sometimes look for on film convinced I did take, nowhere to be found. As if each shot has its own past, its memories, everything it was, making it what it is.


Photography is a fascinating art form. It freezes and contains present moments with an immediacy other media can’t quite match, but at its best it also contains a history and suggests a future for that captured moment beyond the frame. Unlike creations of literature and other arts, a photograph not only represents a reality and presents an instant, it also happens in an instant, it is the instant of both happening and creating, preserved forever. The images shown here aren’t perfect. They aren’t even what I set out to capture. But in the end, fuzzy focus and odd lighting included, they are exactly what happened that rainy day at Brooklyn Botanic.


Taking a photograph is like standing on the very precipice of time, where the mundane and the universal meet, where every second counts because it is both unique and fleeting. To remain still, as time itself rushes past, like the eye of a storm, requires incredible poise, and yes, patience. But as I discovered today opening my Ilford mailer like a kid on Christmas morning, finding there, not empty boxes but exactly what I wanted - and how could it be otherwise, when the person you were sends the person you are a gift over distance and time? -  some things are worth the wait.