“I don’t think I’m as resilient as I used to be, or as I thought I was. This shit is difficult. (Me in all my eloquence)”
That was the message I sent to a close friend of mine, at one time my best friend and confidant, now my former lover or partner. Still they are the person I want to be most open and vulnerable with. Yet I spend hours weighing and measuring what I might say, if I should say anything at all. I ask myself if it is a good day to say hello, to ask how she is doing. I’m not sure what to call us anymore, what we were. What we are. Labels were always something we intentionally neglected…even if my heart (and I suppose by that I mean my mind) had settled on one.
We had spent time together during the pandemic, some of the worst of it. Now there is a distance, both physical and emotional. Distance, from the Latin distantia, meaning “distance, remoteness, difference.” It is an unspoken one, steeped in a thick silence.
I am still learning why it is that I take pictures. I call myself a photographer not because it is what I studied in college, nor because it is largely the skills I have subsisted off of since graduating. I have considered myself a photographer since before my days of studying, the streets of New York just as much my teachers as the ones found in the classrooms.
I told myself it was because of the way I used my eyes. The way I saw the world, interpreted it, considered it, analyzed and shared it with others. That that was what made me a photographer. During my freshman year, my professor, Algis Balsys—I had many, but this man was to become considerably influential throughout my four years in New York—told the class that he made photographs because he had to. It was a visceral compulsion. He woould see something and instinctively know, in that instant, that he needed to make a photograph of it. I remember him saying that were he not to, his very existence might hang in the balance. As though a missed photograph would end his life. This came from a man who also said “don’t take art so seriously that you start calling it Arthur (or art with a capital “A.”)” He was a man of many contradictions, though at the time he seemed absolute in everything he said. To this day I’m not sure what he meant.
I am sure, however, that I now understand an element of what he was trying to tell us all. I feel something similar these days. It is not a recent development, and I don’t experience the same urgency that he spoke of, the absolute shock and inability to continue without documenting what he has witnessed. I do know that on more than one occasion it has felt like my life has depended on making pictures.
My message to my friend was the best I could manage at what might be called a cry for help. One of those impulsive actions we choose to do much in the same way one would reach for a life preserve if they had fallen overboard a ship, feeling the waves of the ocean carry and crash against them, the constant threat of sinking below the surface and drowning from exhaustion.
I am still recovering from being bedridden on Sunday. It began with a slight, barely noticeable irritation in my throat. That progressed quickly to painful swallowing, a slight fever, some aches, and fatigue that made me shake when I walked. My sense of smell intact, I brushed aside the sense that it could be related to COVID-19. I shined the light on my phone towards the back of my throat and saw what looked to be indications of strep.
Having a general reluctance to visit the doctor, any doctor, I figured I’d just stick it out like I usually do. I took from my bathroom medicine cabinet a vial of Zinda Tilismuth, to my knowledge, an incredibly potent ayurvedic cure-all which I had purchased from a local Indian grocery store. After nearly twenty hours of sleep, two light meals, and repeated dosing of the deep maroon liquid the pain in my throat vanished, along with the fever and aches. A weakness still lingered over my body, but in light of whatever miracle had occurred, that seemed insubstantial. With my physical ills seemingly passing, and my being awake for more than one hour at a time, my conscious returned to its natural state of mental distress.
Spring is upon us. The days are warming, the birds can be heard in the mornings, the yellows of daffodils and forsythia can be seen along the roads, and the trees have thousands of small buds on them. Kurt Vonnegut would often offer his alternative names for the seasons during the many times he spoke at public events such as commencements. He eschewed the word spring, instead calling it “unlocking.” The land, as it warmed up, would begin to unlock. It would wake up. The animals would return to their daily lives after hibernating, the plants would emerge, and so on. Society in America is also undergoing its own unlocking. State’s have lifted their mask mandates, restaurants are allowing indoor dining, and people, exhausted from having to spend so much time with themselves, their partners, and their social isolation are trying to create whatever they can that even closely resembles the “normal” they were used to before the lost year of 2020.
On the surface of it all, there is a hopeful optimism that can be seen all around. Sure, the news still speaks of recent surges in Michigan, New Jersey and elsewhere, but the schedule to vaccinate the American public has a promising momentum. That is to say nothing of the fact that the vast majority of the world is still either without vaccines (due to the stockpiling and hoarding of wealthier nations), or struggling to vaccinate citizens at any substantial rate. I however, find myself alone. I am not so optimistic. Yes, I am thrilled that I will no longer need to shoulder the constant fear of my friends, family, and loved ones falling ill because they needed to go to the grocery store only to find it sprawling with people.
However, my depressive isolation is much more self-centered. In a world where everything is unlocking, and for the past year social media has been awash with messages, reminders, and manuals of and for self-love and a call for compassionate communication and emotionally intimate interaction, I find myself receding within, locking back up. Because amongst all that talk of self love, spoon theory, compassion and empathy, I see a society more prone to judgment, more eager to start a debate (fueled by emotions, so that there is little hope of actual communication), more quick to say they don’t have time to help, they’re running out of spoons, and suggest that you seek professional help (a suggestion that comes from and assumes a place of privileged—therapy is expensive).
There are a myriad of reasons why friends are so valuable. Not least of which is that a group of friends, tight-knit or otherwise, can act as a support net for when someone is stumbling, or when they fall. Friends lift each other up. They help to shoulder the burdens of existence, but they also share in the experiences that make living wonderful…valuable. Sometimes a friend can find themselves so low that they can’t see all the wonderful things that are happening. Friends expand our perspective, expand our lives during the times when our minds seek to shrink back into themselves.
I know a lot of the trouble I experience comes from my neuodivergent mind. As one who both suffers from and is blessed with ADHD, is seems like focusing on a single task can be impossible unless that task is to somehow drive myself down. Nowadays, I don’t reach out to friends. After over a year of pandemic existence I am afraid of how many spoons they have left at any given point in the day. Even before the pandemic, I knew that my disability could make me “a bit much” to handle sometimes. My manic highs and depressive lows always seemed to be fueled by the same thoughts, same arguments, and anyone brave enough to assist would grow weary seeing no cure in sight. Of course they would. Fear of abandonment and an anxious attachment style caused by childhood trauma? Yeah, that too. So approaching someone for help nowadays comes after a week-long personal debate, and ultimately gets labeled a bad idea. Have you ever called a help-line only to apologize for taking up the other person’s time moments after they pick up? It can be like that sometimes.
So what does this have to do with photography? Today was one of the bad days. It didn’t start out bad. It didn’t start out good either. After a morning spent doing not much of anything, I sat down and read until just beyond the halfway point of The Cellist of Sarajevo. I’m finding out it isn’t the best book to read when you’re feeling down. Neither is it the worst though. It is beautifully written, and its stories lend a perspective to whatever troubles you might be facing.
My dog, who had resigned herself to her crate due to the sounds of the wind, emerged to request a walk. The weather was nice. Sunny and in the sixties. I decided that it would be a shame to waste the weather inside, no matter how much I was enjoying the book. It wasn’t going anywhere, but good weather expires. I picked up my camera, slipped on a pair of shoes, and we drove to the nature preserve at the end of my street. We walked along a bike path that I had never explored before, and it was a refreshing and enjoyable experience. At this point I had yet to send that message to my friend. It was all typed up and waiting. I was working up the courage.
I like looking for the small details in life. I find the big pictures can be easy, and those big pictures are the things that most people can see easily. You don’t really need to focus for those. The small things you need to look for. You need to be openly willing to have your attention caught by a glimmer, or an interesting shape just in the corner of your eye, in the limits of your vision. These distractions are heaven-sent. Take today for instance. These impulses to document the twist of a vine, the light falling on thorns, or moss, or the reflection of golden leaves in water that resembles a painting…these are the things that I find myself needing to make pictures of.
Being outside, or even inside (but outside of yourself) and just watching light breathe life into everything…that’s what keeps me alive. I sometimes think I make pictures to prove to myself that I am alive, but I think I might actually be making them to keep myself alive. Because if there can be that sort of beauty all around us then perhaps it is worth dealing with all of the other shit that is difficult.
Most days I’m not so sure. Still, I keep on making pictures.
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