Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day Edition: The Only Living Girl in New York, in Vermont

The Revelations of Travel, Hosting a Traveler

Miss O' on the porch of Pratt Hall, Montgomery, VT, 5-18-12.
Photo by special surprise guest George Lightcap.

No sooner had I returned from a long weekend in Vermont than my friend Rina arrived from India via Vancouver, in town to work for a few weeks on her Ph.D., interviewing people at the United Nations courtesy the good people at Columbia University. So with almost no time to prepare for her, I answered the phone at 8 AM, gave directions to her taxi driver, and greeted her when she quickly arrived with too much luggage (as usual); too many ideas of what to do (ditto); and no organizational strategy. A typical Liberal.

I say this with affection. She’s also a Marxist scholar, one who upon having the luggage dropped in her room and the tea poured, says, “So, Lisa, what are we to do about Wall Street? What do you think of Obama?” You know, small talk.

Rina takes tea in the New York kitchen of Miss O'.

Just so in Vermont: Upon arrival in Burlington after ten hours on a train, I was greeted warmly by my old Bread Loaf friend Rebecca, and after dropping my backpack into the trunk of her Mini and pouring my too-ample ass into the passenger seat, we recounted our respective trips (hers to the station from her home near the Canadian border, mine from New York); shared our theories of being single vs. married; expounded on our need for travel, the uses of distance in relationships, our growth since graduate school, our pursuit of art and careers…you know, bullshitting to kill time. Typical Liberals.

The author with pal Rebecca, Bread Loaf graduation 1994.
Photo by Jean LeBlanc.

I say all that with joy, with relief. My friends and I do not exchange brands of coffee so much as how the coffee comes to us. Is this obnoxious? Exhausting? For some, yes, it is. For me, it’s just heaven. So that when we reach their wood house on the massive brook resplendent in waterfalls and deliberate light as well as the light of the stars, we—I, Rebecca, and her husband—are rooted in place by shared values. We find the common ground over midnight walks, red wine, a repast of bread and cheese and berries. Talk, too, fertilizes our ground; out of this soil can now come art.

With Bob and Becca and Becca's wood sculpture.
Photo by George Lightcap.

I hope that doesn’t sound fatuous. Ah, well. (Excuse: Rina also arrived with a cold and cough that has only gotten worse, and two hours ago I started feeling all her symptoms: Unwilling to admit of illness, Rina would remark, “I think the air on the plane has made my throat sore,” or “Perhaps the sugar in the tea is not agreeing with my throat,” or “I think it is dust” after a sneeze and nose blow. Typical…[finish that thought], but I’ll just say it: I have a fucking cold.)

I'll get back to Vermont, but here’s what I’m really thinking about: Florida.

When I got back to New York and looked up the ol’ Huffington Post, I read that Republican presidential candidate Romney has a “slight lead” over incumbent Obama in one important state: Florida. And it got me thinking about this state, which is perhaps the single most powerful state, politically, in the nation. I could not help but contrast it with Vermont, which perhaps might be the single least powerful state in the nation, politically, except that it is HUGE in vision and ideas. And the voice of Bernie Sanders.

The Role of Landscape

Allow me to generalize broadly and without restraint: Vermont and Florida are “vacation” states, though there the similarity ends: Vermont has mountain lake people in summer, skiers in winter; Florida has beachcombers, retirees, and theme park goers all year round. And they attract entirely different full time residents, too.

Vermont vs. Florida

Vermont is sparsely populated, has outlawed billboards, promotes organic stuff, outlawed fracking, supports people who “live off the grid.” People who move to Vermont value seasons, challenging terrain, rugged beauty, thickly greened spaces, individualism. Moose. Dairy cows. Winter is a bitch (beautiful, but man), and summer is the payoff, as my friend Rebecca points out. People who vacation in Vermont go there to walk up hill. They climb rocks. They swim in cold lakes. They have to chop wood to build a fire each night for warmth. They do this on purpose. It’s not diverse in ethnicity—it’s really, really white—but it is diverse in personalities: hikers and artists, maple syrup makers and farmers, tavern owners and choir teachers, all bonded by the land.

Florida, by contrast, is densely populated, with highly developed, highly commercialized coasts and cities (and orange groves and farms and a fishing industry). People who move to Florida value ease, warmth, sunshine, comfort. Winter might include a freeze or three, but is more or less a continuous summer. People who vacation in Florida go there to take elevators, walk flat lands from the condo to the shore, lie still on soft towels on soft sand, feel sunny warmth on lotioned skin, eat seafood, sleep. (I guess people swim and waterski, but you know.) The density of the population, and the diversity of age and race, is made mushier by the sunshine, sand, and surf, I guess.

Compare and Contrast: I have dear friends in Florida, but I can't help it: The place could be wiped out by a hurricane at any time, and when it threatens and happens, it’s national news (!!!)—and all of our homeowners’ insurance premiums go up because of Florida. Somehow no one seems to be bothered by the fact that flood insurance is no longer possible to get from a private insurance company as a result of Florida (and other coastal states and towns built on flood plains, but this is about Florida). By contrast, when blizzards bury Vermont every winter, no one remarks on it. It doesn’t make news. When Hurricane Irene hit and decimated Vermont, it was in the news for about 2 days, and then Vermont got on with it. Of course, Vermont doesn't grow oranges.

Vermont will never turn a national election, and yet the people there think deeply about politics, the environment, the future. They quietly banned fracking the other week. Not much in the news. They get on with it. By contrast, every little event that occurs in Florida, from a tropical storm to a freeze in the orange groves to a slight lead in an election, makes national news and stays there. All those people, all that sunshine makes them popular—and, unlike Vermonters, they seem to welcome being news.

What I’m Really Talking About

Our lousy Republican presidents are elected because of Florida. Soft, sandy, warm, flat Florida.

Our really interesting Independents and Liberals are elevated in Vermont: Rugged, wild, steep, cold, green Vermont.

Guess which state Miss O' would rather live in?

Rina Visits from India: We Always Talk Class

Rina always asks me about class in this country, remarking usually that unlike India, America is “classless.” I always have to set her straight. We are hugely class-oriented in the U.S., and it’s not just about money, but it’s about money.

We say we celebrate the rugged individual, the can-do original, the person who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, the self-made man.

Really? (In Florida?)

Let’s look at Republicans, who tell that story to themselves and then promote George W. Bush.

Bush/Romney: Rich, privileged, they act as if they made it on their own—and people buy it.  They both got into Ivy League schools, sure, but family connections as much as (or, in lieu of) “merit” played a significant role. They both had rich dads who ran for office first, and both used their dads’ money to make their ways in the world. We pretend it makes them mavericks.

Let’s look at Democrats, who tell themselves the story of the self-made man…and actually are telling the truth.

Clinton/Obama: Actually made it on their own, the products of single moms in impoverished circumstances, considered “trash” (and still are "nothing but trash," according to several Republican friends). They benefited from what America does best: They made opportunities where none would seem to exist, and through hard work and education, were able to change their lives while (oh, sure, ego is here, but still) cultivating a desire to serve rather than choosing professions to make a lot of money. Unlike their Republican counter-candidates, Clinton and Obama are called “elitist” (can I hear an "uppity"?) by detractors (media enemies) because of their Ivy League educations—so how is it the same educations that upper class Bush/Romney received are disdained when received by lower class students? Huh. Classism. In America. Go know.

What Do Travel and Landscape Have to Do With All This?

I traveled to Montgomery, Vermont, (yes, there should be a comma after a state when named with a city within a sentence) last week to read my Facebook Status Updates about New York at Celebration of Expressive Arts (CEA). This event was created by my Bread Loaf friend Rebecca Cummins, and is heartily supported by, set up with, and photographed by her husband, Bob. Both are retired educators who love the arts. Rebecca herself is a writer, and very shy. Her joy has been in bringing to her communities (here and in Illinois) a monthly artistic event featuring a musician, a writer, and a visual artist to share a stage with what they have to give.

Rebecca introduces singer-songwriter John Nicholls  at CEA, 5-18-12.
Photo by Robert Cummins.

Miss O’ shared her special evening with musician John Nicholls (remember that name--his band is Near North) and painter Dierdra Tara Michelle (remember that name, too--amazing). We talked about what we did, and we did it. We did it with wild confidence and with no idea how we’d be received.

Miss O' tells her tales of NYC in front of a painting by Dierdra Tara Michelle.
Photo by Charlotte Rosshandler for CEA.

It turns out that the whole room had a New York connection. Some even had Virginia connections (the tavern owner had gone to UVa). All the presenters loved music, incorporated music into their art, somehow, and stories into the songs. We brought diverse worlds into a hall in Vermont and had something to say to each other and the audience. The audience had stuff to talk to us about afterward. It was just awesome.

Rina, who had to hear all these stories, is from India and lives part of the year with her husband in Vancouver, getting to New York whenever she can. She works in the field of international relations. I have hosted her ever since a former student of mine in Virginia suggested she live here when she was in New York in 2007. Rina brings me news from the outside world. New York and I, in turn, keep her apprised of social issues like Occupy Wall Street and the latest in Gay Rights news. I’ve got her reading Dan Savage. She has me reading Marshall Berman. (Yeah, I had to Google him, too.) 

The outside comes inside, is what I'm saying. I think this is a good thing.

Diversity v. Homogeneity

Landscape is common ground, and each landscape invites certain comers. When you can choose to live in a place, the choice reflects something vital about you.

I love the land in Virginia. I'm glad to be from therehistory and hills, family and friends and memories—even as its politics do not reflect me. One day I knew who I was, where I wanted to be, and could do something about it. I now live in New York because I like mixing it up. I want human life to be in my face. This is not always enjoyable. It often smells. (That said, I’m afraid to travel to Delhi, no matter how much Rina begs me. I have limits to what I will endure, and it has to do with toilets and toilet paper. I’m a fan. (This is not about alien lands: I won’t hike the Appalachian Trail with my friend George for the same reason.) If this makes me less of a person, so be it.) But I need to be surrounded by people who don’t necessarily think the way I do, or live the way I do, or like what I like, but who want to BE where I do. We are willing to be challenged by each other, and fascinated by each other, face to face, on a daily basis, in order to be on this turf. It’s a question of values.

Stay and change a place you no longer feel akin to? Or go? (Is it ever fair to generalize a place? Is it useful to play the "I'm superior" card? No and no: I'm telling you where I am. And I'm aware that choices of where to live take money and balls, and sometimes balls and even money aren't enough--life gets in the way. So go with me.) Again, it's a question of values, including quality of life.

People who choose to live in Vermont or in Florida or in New York—in the country or the suburbs or the city—do so because of their values. Values are important to define. What do you value most? Why? If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would it be? Where have you felt most at home? If you have not been able to travel, what place has captured your imagination? These are the questions I started asking myself, and ones my friends asked of me, when I started thinking about a move.

Years ago, when I first lived here, my Aunt Mary (who died just about a year ago) looked at me while down on Canal Street, staring at hucksters and listening to foreign tongues and being bumped by the oddly dressed, and said, marveling, “Why, you can be just anybody you want to here.” And a new perspective was born. A student on a field trip to New York once said, upon disembarking from the bus in front of the hotel, "Now I know why I've been unhappy all my life." Landscape can discover you.

We travel to other places to have our values put to the test. If you are unwilling to have your values tested, you actually don’t have values: You have FEAR.

So when in doubt—or better, when you are absolutely sure—get out there: Share your art, talk to a stranger, listen to a person whose views frighten you, have coffee with a homosexual. What I mean is, BE where you ARE, and get out of there sometimes. Go THERE. Have that experience, is what I am saying. And then who are you?

Rina keeps talking to me from the kitchen as she fries cheese curd and cumin seeds: “Lisa, what do you think about being rumored to be gay when you aren’t gay? If I am teaching diversity and tolerance, how can I care whether or not someone is rumored to be gay, or if I am rumored to be gay? I just shrug.” She laughs. Her laugh is music. ”What else is there to do?”

What to do in the face of accusations that should be observations merely? in the face of hate, prejudice, classism, racism, stupidity, apathy, intolerance? And what of the preference for eternal sunshine and sand over steep climbs and cold rocks? (And really, who can blame you?) Wherever you find yourself, or whatever your choice of landscape: Know where you are and why. Figure out how it could be better. Keep talking. Share stuff. Laugh. And don’t live in fear. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

In Memoriam

To all the soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, doctors, nurses, and civilians who have sacrificed their lives and their sanity to help keep the rest of us safe and well—and who traveled to parts of the world they may never have imagined they’d see—this blog is the best I have to offer you today. Love and thanks.

(Art from Google Images)

P.S. May 31, 2012: Florida is purging its voter rolls of immigrants, the elderly, Liberals: If it outrages you as much as Stephen Colbert's brilliant SuperPac, sign the petition:

And thanks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Are You There When You’re There?

Damselfly with shadow. Photo by Jean LeBlanc

Thoughts on poetry, on photography, on presence.
“Stand in the place where you live.” –R.E.M.

As my Facebook friends know, Miss O' does what I guess you'd call word portraits of my adopted city of New York—its people, scenes on the subway, sights around the various “cities,” for as I did this, I learned that there was more than one New York. It’s not only differences among boroughs (five of them). Architecture and attitude shift in startling ways, separated sometimes only by a cross street. Sometimes you don’t even realize a new city has happened: You are no longer on the Lower East Side, but in the (artificially named) East Village; did it happen crossing Delancey Street, or coming on Second Avenue and East 4th Street?

The other thing about New York is that one day, unexpectedly, you realize the city is your Big House, that the Laundromat is another room in it, the green produce market like the pantry, the pizza place your fridge. What’s more, people here do all manner of private grooming chores publicly, in transit, from flossing to shaving to putting on makeup to clipping nails. It’s never “okay,” really, which is the relief, because we most of us still have standards, dammit; but then because we have to make exceptions for ourselves, we look a little sideways about others. For example, yesterday morning Miss O’ got an offer to see a show for FREE at 2 PM, and so had to do laundry to have anything to wear (not just something to wear), which meant loading the laundry, returning home to shower, and returning to the Laundromat with wet hair (her mother, Lynne, still scolds, “Only tramps go out with wet hair,” and is she wrong?) because, well, I want to have it all! At times like this, I just put on personal credo blinders and focus, focus, focus on the task at hand, as if moving not down my public street but my private hallway in Queens.

In moments like the laundry episode, I don’t exactly want to be present, if you see what I mean. I am placing myself into a special slot of “nonexistent” and therefore try not to notice the kids playing handball and the two women with gorgeous coats chatting on the corner and the mother saying in a thick Asian accent to her tiny daughter, “If you have six dollars and I take away five dollars, how many are left?” because I'm out here with WET HAIR that ONLY TRAMPS would wear in public and oh my god, but there it is.

Since discovering the work of Patsy Rodenburg (see a couple of posts back) and reading her book, The Second Circle, I have been thinking about what it means to be present. I’ve thought about this for years, actually: In college I studied the work of Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theater, where one of the challenges for a show I worked on was to “live in the present” all day. It’s just about impossible, and for a reason, but it was marvelous to talk about. (Try it sometime. It changes you. I say this as if it’s automatically a good thing, so maybe I should say, “It grows you.”) In my first two years in New York, I worked with Polina Klimovitskaya and her theater company, Terra Incognita, and Polina’s directive at the start of each rehearsal was to lie on the floor and remain fully present, move when there is a natural impulse to do that. Amazing to watch—what it means to have a natural impulse, to act on it, and to see that happen. It’s the very definition of honest.


Photo by Jean LeBlanc, Bread Loaf, 1994

What does it mean to experience a moment, to experience our lives, fully in the present? It’s one thing to be jarred by the guy on the subway platform who places a hand to close one nostril while blowing snot out onto the ground from the other. (It’s really quite unbelievable the first time you see it. And every bit as gross ever after, and oh, yes, there will be many, many afters); or a yelling match on the subway precipitated when a black woman sits next to a (racist) white woman who leaps up and shouts racial epithets until she’s red and purple in the face for as long as it takes for her to make the sudden departure at the next stop; or to turn a corner into eight dusty, black plastic garbage bags piled atop a wheeled contraption and pushed by a man buried under layers and layers of grimy coats—in other words, to be jarred into recognition of a moment by the unusual.

But what about, you know, just living? To discuss this, I asked my dear friend Jean LeBlanc if I might borrow her poetry and photos. So today, Jeannie is my special guest star. Allow me to introduce her.

Poet Jean LeBlanc with husband George Lightcap
(the guy in photos with Miss O' here) at a poetry reading, in a photo by, I think, Miss O'

Jean LeBlanc has published four volumes of poetry and has a website, which I urge you to visit:
She writes poetry in many forms and is what I think must be a master of the Japanese forms of haiku (3-line poems, typically (but not exclusively, in English, anyway) 5-7-5 syllables/line that focus on image) and the tanka, (a 5-line poem, 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure, though not necessary to be followed strictly, in English anyway), which focuses on an image in the first three lines, and allows the “ego” to return in the last two lines, as for commentary. I learned about these forms in a workshop she gave in Sussex County, New Jersey. She's a brilliant teacher of her art.

In her book of poems, The Stream Singing Your Name, I found a tanka that I think captures perfectly a moment in the present:

  one more day
  of morning snow,
  afternoon rain —
  the hemlock decides

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 69)

When I read this, I hear the crash of snow, see the branches bounce, a relief, like a shrug of weight thrown from the back. I am aware that this results from a continuing morning of snow and rain, so even here, a little of the past is present, too, but in the final two lines, I am fully made present by the hemlock, by the personified decision to drop the snow. Now, the hemlock could also be falling over in a suicidal collapse. Either way, this moment of surrender has me firmly in the present experience. (There is metaphor here, too, should you want to go there: There is only so much anyone can take before she breaks. I think the image heightens this.)


Photo by Jean LeBlanc, New Jersey Appalachian Trail, 2011

Being present does not mean denying a future. In fact, what I learned in that “be present all day” exercise in college is that in order to function in a human world of commitments and obligations to yourself and others, you have to anticipate, which is to say we live a good part of our days in the (unknowable) future. We anticipate going to class or to work, meeting friends later, performing in a show, things like that. We have to prepare. We go to the store for the ingredients of a meal, for example. And while we may have a present tense experience shopping for ingredients, we are also thinking about future meals.

Here is a tanka that anticipates the future:

  what will set apart
  this day—
  the storm approaches
  tossing little sticks
  ahead of itself

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 65)

The speaker sees a day in motion, and sees (in the present) an approaching storm, and knows the day will not be the same; destruction, in fact, is already suggested in the windblown sticks. (Metaphorically, I imagine a confrontation with forces beyond our control, a fight with another person, a battle.) The present moment is about anticipation of the future event.

The author's great-grandparents in the 
Council Bluffs Nonpareil, ca. 1947

"I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." –Virginia Woolf

Another difficulty of living in the present, of course, is that our past is not only in us, too, but is a guide for us; we call it up. We learn from it. Fortunately for us, our learning from past experiences often becomes so integral that we don’t really have to think about it. At other times, it torments us. Some of us drink to it, or because of it (cheers!), and healthy people like Jean write poems about it.

From a tanka sequence called knowing this world, this last poem in the sequence captures the hold that past can have on us, how it informs who we are, and how we gain a knowledge of ourselves in the present by seeing clearly, in a past moment, who we were.

  humble, direct
  a backdoor family —
  at the heart of our house
  a grand staircase
  no one ever used

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 43)

(Metaphorically, I think of personal genius buried by habit, by custom, as well as humility.)

General time, infinite time

Jeannie also writes in a Korean form called the sijo. The sijo consists of three lines, approximately (in English) 16 syllables per line. It’s an epic, really, in a small space. In this sijo, the speaker reflects on something out of specific time, outside of even specific experience. It’s a universal, in the best sense of that term, and a wondering.

  Always two as one, two as one, that’s how lovers are described.
  No one sings about a solitary woman in a garden,
  the sun reddening her shoulders, her hair full of bees.

—Jean LeBlanc, The Stream Singing Your Name, Modern English Tanka Press, 2009 (p. 65)

As a woman who lives a solitary life, I am emotionally connected to this poem; but more than that, I remember a professor I had at Oxford who did a lecture called, “Reader, I Married Him, or, Can a Novelist Be a Feminist?” in which she pointed out that Jane Austen wrote romances, but never her own story, for example. Can a solitary woman ever write that novel, and if she does write it, would anyone read it, or want to? (I am determined to write and perform that play, am writing it, and my dream is to make people line up to see it.) (Dammit.)

Take a Picture

Lyle Lovett’s song “Family Reserve” captures a question I hold:

And we're all gonna be here forever
So Mama don't you make such a stir
Now put down that camera
And come on and join up
The last of the family reserve

Is it possible to be present to life while taking a picture? Is being present with a camera being present to life? Let's look at that opening photo again: 

Photo by Jean LeBlanc (damselfly with shadow)

One might just as well ask if, in the doing of any task, we are capable of being ever-present to everything all around us. I think that if we are fully present in the doing of any task, then we can later have the joy of being present to what the task accomplished. Does that make sense? Last weekend, for example, I took the mound of stuff in the corner of my living room and turned it, somehow, into an office. Was I aware of the world spinning, the sunshine outside, the temperature of the air? Sometimes. Mostly I focused on making the damned office area, putting things into canvas crates (thanks to Martha Stewart, Home Depot, and the good workers of China), tossing old papers, and arranging the shit out of it all. The next day, I could stare and marvel at the new space, the completed task; I also thought of the future, of what there was room for now. I wept.

I think taking a photograph can be like this experience. I tend not to take pictures. I like to (try to) live every, every moment I am with people, out in the world, and I take in as much sensation as I can. A camera has only ever been an extension of that at finite times of my life: when I was in middle school and got a Kodak instamatic camera for my 13th birthday; when I got a job at The Virginia Farmer writing articles and photographing dairymen; and the summer I studied Virginia Woolf at Oxford. A camera came along with me at other times of my life, too, but my heart, my art, wasn’t in it. It’s not my form, though I wish so often it were.

I cannot be “present” to where I am when I have a camera. In fact, only two people I know can engage fully with the place, the people, the companions, and the moment while also taking pictures—my friend JC in rural Virginia, and my cousin Kerry in California. The camera is a natural extension of their brains, hearts, arms: I never feel excluded from the scene, and they both take great pictures, but snap for the sake of holding memories rather than to exhibit.

People who are out taking pictures for the sake of art, however, focus entirely on the art, are present to the art. In addition to being a poet, Jeannie is also a photographer. When I asked Jean to share a haiku and a photo about this subject of photographs and presence, Jeannie emailed me, “The haiku I chose shows how I can write haiku about the things I can't capture with a photo.”

   all morning, the curve
   of the swan's neck,
   the snow-bowed reeds
—Jean LeBlanc

It’s time passing, in perpetuity, these shapes, these mirrors, the morning. A photo can’t do such a moment justice, this experience. To be present to it is to write it, then read it, when one can’t be there.

[Saturday, May 12: I reread Jean's haiku for the 80th time, and had the sudden sensation of grading papers, how I used to sit at a desk, my back bowed over a desk all Sunday morning for many, many years--not that I felt that elegant, but that buried by the snow of the papers.]

I Am a Camera

I awoke this morning remembering the day in the summer of 1991 when I was sent to a farm in Central Virginia (we capitalize regions in Virginia, announcing our distinctions that way, because we all understand that “Northern” Virginians barely “count” as Virginian (that's me), and that Tidewater people do not speak the same language as their Southwestern (Appalachian) counterparts (and that “lachia” is a short a, which people not from ’round chere wouldn’t understand); that once one crosses the Rappahannock River where Stafford County becomes Spotsylvania County, one is in Vajenya. But I digress) to photograph a dairy farmer for the agricultural publication The Virginia Farmer. And how badly I did it.

But what I was really thinking about is how much I regret not photographing Carter Martin, because the photograph I didn’t take is so clear to me, and I’d like you to see it.

In my mind’s eye, I took Carter Martin’s picture in early spring of 1991 when I was walking along Rt. 644 and his road, too (735, I think), teaching myself to photograph on a Pentax K1000 SE, using various F-stops and adjusting the aperture—snapping his tobacco barn, which rested in impossibly green grass, the weathered brown facade framed out by redbud trees, all against a wildly shifting grey sky. I’d write down what each setting was, do several variations, noting the frame number and what I’d done. While standing along the road after one picture, Carter had pulled up in his white pickup truck, seeing me with my camera; I’d walked over to talk to him to say hey. In his seventies, he had the reddest face I’d ever seen on a human—years of exposed farmer’s skin—and the merriest blue eyes, receding white hair, a curve to the lips when he smiled that is like a parenthesis on its back, a Southern mouth, which pushed his cheeks into sagged but still round apples. You see, I have to tell you all this because I didn’t think to take his picture, and I must have known to memorize his face there in his truck window, because inside of two weeks he was dead of a heart attack and stroke.

And that's why we take pictures. One way or another.

There are people who photograph nature, who photograph architecture, and people who photograph people. I’ve tried my eye at all of these subjects, but whatever is that impulse to capture an image that way, I don’t have it. (I memorize the details and put them into words even as I have the experience, as I did with ol’ Carter back there, bless his soul.)


In Emily Webb’s Act III speech to her (unhearing) family, in Thornton Wilder’s marvelous play, Our Town (really a play for older folks like me, though we have teenagers perform it), during her ghostly visitation to her home on her 12th birthday, she begs the attention of her mother, who is bustling around of a morning making breakfast, too busy to see her—and it is in the visitation that Emily is overwhelmed in an understanding of the power of the present:

EMILY: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama!

Later, when she leaves to return to the graveyard, she asks:

EMILY: Does anybody realize what life is while they're living it - every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.

It’s unbearable to Emily, this return to Earth, the rush of this realization, all that we miss in the moments as we live them.  Can a camera help us? Can poems? I think yes. Poets and photographers, playwrights and filmmakers, composers and players, choreographers and painters…and all honest laborers hold us in the present, keep us from flying off the earth.

Coda, in case you'd like to explore the idea of Presence more on your own...

Wim Wenders did a film about the late choreographer Pina Bausch, a marvel of the present, whom I’ve mentioned before in blogs past:  Here is the movie site:  Go to the Trailer tab:  If you can see the film in 3-D, it shows you what 3-D can BE.

And this is a wonderful site for photography of New York City. You can “friend” him on Facebook: Humans of New York:

I'd also like to recommend Leo Tolstoy's short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" which is available online, about the cost of focusing too much on the future, too much on acquisition, on amassing things over having experiences:

I leave you with some words from the astounding Pina Bausch:

“Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost!"

...and a photo of a really fine quote...

   Photo by Lisa DiPetto, NYC