Photos & Synthesis

I’ve left it too late. That’s the sad truth in my own mind, and perhaps the sad truth, period. Instead of risking it and putting more of myself out there for judging and critique when I was young, taking creative risks when I should have been fearless, with time to hone skills and do something about it, I read books and watched TV and movies and raised kids and worried about the future. Which is now, and certainly didn’t need worrying about quite so much. Up until now, my writing has been my art, something I have worked at, and this blog is proof of the validity of that, but then I have no inspiration when I want to write, and no inspiration means no writing, and there’s the rub, and I am left wanting to express…something…somehow. After a life identified as “a pretty good writer,” I’m looking for something different. Something visual. I’m no artist in the pencil and paper sense. Jewelry making? Sometimes. Cooking? Yes, definitely. But then you eat it, savor it, enjoy it, maybe write about it, and it’s gone.

I live surrounded by accomplished artists and musicians with high standards for themselves and their art, and that sets the bar very very high. I am not ashamed to say I’m thoroughly intimidated by that. I’m a really good art appreciator. I know what I like, even when I can’t put my finger on why, and I watch or listen and drink it in. I also know what I don’t like, although I’m trying to stretch my limits there and open up my mind beyond my first reaction, influenced more by Susquehanna Valley narrowness than I want to admit. Line, color, form, ideas, the translation of inspiration to art fascinates me. I have an artist friend who is kind enough, when we get together, to lead me through a little of his creating; from the inspiration – a flower, a dream, graffiti, a fairy tale, a tile floor – to the edgy and intricate fabrics and rugs he designs. It’s a fascinating process and, to me, elusive and mysterious even as I know it is often also just persistence, time, practice, and more time.

My sister, a successful illustrator, carries a sketchbook with her wherever she goes. She journals with her drawings, and uses her pen as a kind of shorthand camera. She records her ideas, her thoughts, her surroundings, her life with a rapid skill I deeply covet. Her sketches become books about notorious family relatives (the last state executioner in France), illustrations for children’s books and magazines, ad campaigns for corporations and universities, and a visual blog I love to read. But it’s not just the pen to paper work (or stylus to iPad) that produces art. My friend and my sister, both possessors of biting wit and sharp intelligence, fully invest their art with their intellect. They know the whys, the social history, the science behind their creation, and inform it all with copious research. They perceive the humor, the pathos, the “thing” that makes the statement for them with thorough understanding, and they put that forward with their own spin on it.  And so it becomes a world apart from plywood cutouts of cows that sit in front yards all over my rural community, or giant generic paintings of the ocean hanging over Grammy’s plastic-covered davenport. It becomes so much more interesting than just pretty. That’s when art gets challenging and exciting and comes to life.

So where does that leave me, a wistful wannabe? In the last two years I’ve begun to go hiking again, and take my camera, or at least my iPhone, along with me. There is so much I want to take back home with me, to remind me of the peace I find on the trail when my chaotic life has me by the neck. Trial and error sometimes get me the results I like and wow, is that a happy accident! There’s so much I don’t know about photography, and almost every picture I take is a crap shoot. Gradually, over the last year, I’ve figured some things out, however, and sometimes now I can actually capture the “thing” that excites me, that inspires me, that moves me when I snap the picture; whether it is in a pillow of moss, a stormy sky, my sassy little nieces, or the ingredients for my salad. Facebook, with my endlessly beckoning profile page and my patiently supportive friends, has been a perfect vehicle for my new hobby. It’s a place to post my favorites, the pictures I think are my best. The ones that come close to capturing the scent in the air, the sweat drops on the rock, the mottled green light and the shifting breeze. This is what I saw and felt and heard! Can you see it, feel it, hear it too? Do you see why I love it? And perhaps it’s that wish to communicate that is the true tinder of artistic expression. It’s finding the means to communicate what you perceive as beautiful or thought-provoking, what grips you and shakes you up, that is the challenge. I can write about it with some success, and now I’m working on a new way that stretches my limits.

A friend wrote to me recently that I had “sacrificed yet gained from staying in central PA.” And she’s right. Staying here was good for me and my family. I know my community and my community knows me, and I like meeting friends by accident on the street every day. It was easier for me to let my children go out on their own as they got older, trusting that they could practice making good decisions where the likelihood of something really awful happening was actually pretty small, despite my fevered worries to the contrary. Now my daughter lives in New York City for the summer, and I truly have very few concerns about her ability to handle herself or to exercise good judgement. I’m 90% happy (10% sad that she’s not here with me) that she is having such wonderful experiences. It’s a move I didn’t have the guts to even contemplate at 20 years old.

But there have been sacrifices. I live in a fairly liberal college town. A tiny island of liberal thinking in a frustratingly conservative area. I feel the threatening creep of conservatism in myself. I’m weary of the knowledge that often I am the most liberal person I know in the room. An extremely careful approach to life surrounds me, hyper-inflated caution that keeps you out of cities, off of airplanes, eating only food familiar to you, only with people who speak your own language, who look like you, in your own country, sometimes in your own town for the entirety of your life. So many rules to follow, to make as sure as you can that nothing uncontrollable or uncomfortable happens to you. Ever. I began to find myself distressingly predictable in my reactions to challenging sights, circumstances, and situations. A rusted car? Ugly. A flooded house? Tragic. Tattoos? A sign of incautious living. I felt myself shuttering in in increments; talking a good game, but living an increasingly fearful and careful life. And then I decided I had to stop and reexamine things, and put it in reverse or it would get ugly. And sad. Instead, it’s been a joyful path.

My children are grown. That’s bittersweet. While I miss the ferocious hugs of the feral love they had for me as little ones, the love, admiration, and pride I feel for their adult selves gives me freedom of spirit I’ve never felt before. My life’s work, balancing out decidedly on the positive side, validating my basic values and every minute of the 25 years of the most grueling job anyone can do, thankfully painting a glossy veneer over my many mistakes. I see all three of them now, determined, kind, hard-working, and so very smart and funny. Each going their own way. It feels right to now move myself forward.  At this moment, I have more independence than I’ve ever had in my life. I have 50 years of life experience and the incremental assertiveness to go with it. I also have a husband who loves and trusts me, and knows it’s important for me to start this. I also know that I’m leaning over onto the downhill side of the learning curve, and a lifetime to learn something suddenly isn’t as much time as it once was. I need to step it up. So I’m jumping in with both feet. Travel opportunity? I’m in. Try new food? Definitely. There’s a concert next month? Buy the tickets. You can’t go? Ok, I’ll go myself. And there will be photographs of all of it. You can look. Or not. You can tell me what you think if you like, and I’ll appreciate it. In the end, though, it’s mostly for me and my soul.

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