Sun-day in the Arboretum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome days, no matter how much might be amiss in the world that I should be personally attending to, how well or poorly I slept last night, or how many responsibilities are begging for my attention, I’m simply incapable of my usual brand of thrashing. I don’t have it in me to wrestle an idea to the ground, chase down my inner critic, or argue a point, even with myself.  On those rare and blessed occasions, particularly when they fall on one of the first days of spring, when the sun is just warm enough to go for a walk without a coat, I’ll often pick up my smaller camera and do just that.

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Today was one of those days. So while I had some ideas that I had intended to write about today, I’m not sure what happened to them. I think I lost them in the Arboretum, possibly under the magnolia tree with its impossibly large pink blossoms.

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I’m sorry to report that I haven’t solved any of the world’s problem’s today, but the world erased all of mine.

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Language and Identity

The title of this post sounds like some kind of philosophical treatise, and indeed, having typed “language and identity” into a google search field just to see if anything came up, I discovered an extensive list of scholarly papers and books on the topic.

I scanned the list and clicked on one link – a book of sociolinguistic theory published by Cambridge University Press. That’s as far as I went in my search. I could either write this post or dive into sociolinguistic theory…

In my writing this morning, I suddenly became fascinated by the hold the term “stay at home mom” has had on me. I thought, what if I just stopped thinking of myself in those words? In truth, I only have one child left at home and she’s 17. I don’t spend a lot of time at home being a mom anymore. Its almost not true. Its actually kind of a cop-out. I spend as much or more time writing, working with photographs, making art, and engaging in all sorts of outdoor physical pursuits as I do in my responsibilities at home.

I could call myself any one of these things. I often do call myself a photographer. Sometimes people pay me to make photographs. When answering the question, “What do you do?” with the words “I’m a photographer”, the next question is usually, “Do you make a living doing that?”, and then I have to say “no”, and mumble my bit about wearing many hats and not really making a living doing any of them. That sucks… but I’ve already written a lot about the conflict between being and doing and how we have a long ways to go culturally before we value “being” over “doing”.

I want to return to this other idea that I’m tracking about language though because it seems relevant to the larger question. What if I simply refuse to allow the word “photographer”, or “writer” or “stay at home mom” to define me in any way. Sure, there is concrete evidence to the fact that I am a mother. There are three human beings on this planet who confirm that fact.

I never decided to be a “stay at home mom”, it just happened, so how did I come to let those words make such a prison for me. How does the word “doctor” or “banker” become a prison for the free human being trapped inside that identity?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame it on my beloved words, and on the possibility that we humans have come to let words define us and our experience in life rather than demanding that words actually serve our purposes.

There’s a campaign I’ve seen on social media lately to ban the word “bossy”, which, when I first saw it, I thought, “Yeah really!” because I was one of those little girls called “bossy”. But then I thought more about it in the context of this topic and I thought, no… the real problem simply lies in the power we give those damn words. (Its not lost on me that I’m sitting here writing this using words. Actually, I’m pounding words into submission with every [hard] tap of my fingers on the keyboard!)

The bits of backlash I’ve read to the “ban bossy” campaign definitely make this argument, that as a feminist agenda it generally fails because actually, a lot of empowered women (feminists?) don’t seem to mind being called bossy. In thinking about it, though it was a word used to shut me up when I was young, it doesn’t have that effect anymore and I take a secret pride when my daughters are called “bossy”. I think “good for you!”.

In my last post, I said that I had some theories about why its so hard for women of my demographic to value themselves and share their gifts with the world. I’ll add to my original thoughts that there are sociolinguistic challenges as well. I smile as I write those words because I didn’t actually know sociolinguistics was a field until today.

Though I write from the perspective of a 52 year old woman who has spent most of the last 24 years out of the workforce raising children, I know that each person, no matter how they identify themselves, faces challenges when they decide they want to break down the invisible structures that contain them within an identity they no longer want to live within. Interestingly enough, I can’t say what it feels like to stop identifying with the term “housewife” for example, because its one I refused to adopt, or “soccer mom”, because I didn’t take that one on either. Likewise, but for different reasons, I’ll never know what it feels like to try to shed the identity label “attorney” or “banker”, if one longs to be a poet.

There’s no getting around the fact that we humans seem to like to label things. It would be a problem if we stopped labeling doors, “restroom” in restaurants and had people wandering around opening doors to closets offices and storage rooms when they simply needed to use a toilet. But we don’t have a problem with a closet being remodeled to become a bathroom, so why do we have such a hard time when we want to change our own label, or wear a different one every other week?

“What do you do?”

This weekend, I’m clearly a writer. This is my second post on this blog in two days after almost three years.

I’ll also be a cook, a dog walker and a laundress. I have a half finished art project that I’ve walked by too many times to count. Now that winter is trying to turn into spring, my garden is begging for attention. I might get called in to wear my editor’s hat on Sunday night, or provide college counseling. I have photos that need editing for my farm blog and an empty refrigerator.

What do you do?

Take Three or Four

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. She got a job, found a place to live, had a glamorous international career and lived happily ever after. The End.

This is not my story.

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. That plan didn’t work out so well. So she came home broke, got a job that paid well, got married, quit the job, went to grad school and became a french professor who traveled extensively, with an adventurous life of the mind, breathing the rarified air of academia, writing and teaching about esoteric ideas. The End.

This is not my story.

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to have a very adventurous life. She went to college, got a degree in French and moved to Paris. That plan didn’t work out so well. So she came home broke and got a job that paid well, got married, and went to grad school to be a professor, life intervened and that plan didn’t work out either, so she quit after the masters degree, had some kids, moved into a nice house in a nice neighborhood and lived happily ever after, never looking back. The End.

This is not my story.

I’m pretty sure my kids and husband would have liked it if it had been, if I’d been more content to “smile and pour tea”, happy that I had three healthy children, a nice house and enough food on the table, but it wasn’t that easy.

I could have gone back, I could still go back … to Paris, to the well-paying job, to finish the PhD program, to teaching french as I did during graduate school. But the moment passed. The fire was gone. The energy moved on from those places. My life grew roots underneath me and I had to find a new way to find myself.

Carl Jung said “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

Finding this quote years ago, I pinned it to the wall, vowing to make peace with the choices I’d made in my life, with the past and with the future. I didn’t want my kids carrying around the weight of my unlived dreams.

I’m not finished with that yet, which is to say, that I’m not finished living the adventurous life. It hasn’t taken any of the directions I’d charted.  Its been a different kind of adventure. Raising three kids was all the adventure I could handle for many years. Sometimes simply getting three kids out the door and to school in the morning was all the adventure I needed in one day. Any full time mom will attest to that, and those that had professional careers, having children later in life, will largely agree that the work is harder, the emotional investment bigger, the hours longer, the payoff greater. So why is it still so hard for us to answer the question, “What do you do?” Why not just say, “I’m a mom.”

I write these words knowing that they don’t apply to all of my peers, that there are those who don’t flinch when asked “What do you do?”.

I have some theories about this. Largely, they’re chicken and egg theories, like, is it because we, as a culture, still don’t value the job of raising children because it doesn’t generate an income?  Or, is it because those of us who can’t answer the question without squirming still haven’t come to value themselves enough to stand there and not care what anyone thinks of their answer? I’m sure the answer is a combination of the two and that one reinforces the other. But why is it still so much harder for women of my demographic to value themselves for who they are, and for the contribution they make to the world regardless of what it looks like?

I have some theories about that also… about being part of an age group who grew up on the outgoing tide of the original women’s movement, too young to benefit from the first wave, and too old to be the daughters of feminist mothers. My experience with feminism in the early to mid 70’s was through the eyes of fairly traditional parents and Catholic school teachers.  During my own young adulthood and those of my peers, it was hard to connect “feminism” as it appeared in the women’s studies department and in athletics with being female. It seemed more of a terrifying than liberating force.

Perhaps I’m way off base, but I sense that I am not alone, that the larger cultural conversation is generally missing the voices of a whole group of women because we have silenced ourselves, because we have believed that our voices didn’t matter. Who decided that for us? Who decided that for me? And why did I acquiesce?

Last October, I screwed up my courage and went to the Emerging Women conference in Boulder, Colorado. It was four days full of inspirational talks and workshops by incredible women in business, thought leadership, music, art, and spirituality. Most had left or transformed careers to better live the truth of who they are. I loved every minute of my time there, and was truly inspired by those days. I also kept waiting to hear a story that was mine, or even mine but a chapter later, someone whose primary “career” had been 20 years raising children followed by some other creative undertaking, but there was no one whose distinguishing credential was “mother”. It is often my impression that in order to be taken seriously, a woman needs to have a resume that includes something other than “mother”… or does it? Because it is also my impression that we simply have to believe in ourselves and our words enough and be brave enough to keep saying the things that we need to say until they are heard.

Put into those words, isn’t it the same struggle anyone goes through who wants to have their voice count, whether its in music, art, literature or business? I think so. But I also think that the slope is steeper, the terrain more rugged, and the obstacles higher for stay at home moms of my demographic. I think that our struggles, (my struggles) with identity, confidence, and the duo of self worth and self love are particularly challenging after years of putting the needs of children and families above our own, as we believed was best for all. Somewhere among the diapers, the circular conversations with three year olds, the soccer carpools, the last minute late night editing with teenagers, and the preparation of thousands of meals, I (we) lost track of what it was that I knew was mine to share with the world, that I’m afraid is no longer relevant, or afraid that it never was to start with.

This, then, is my task, for my own sake, as well as for the sake of my daughters, my son and the generations to follow.

“Close to Home”

Sunday evening, I returned from spending three and a half days in Port Townsend. While PT is only two and a half hours away, I came home to that feeling you have when you’ve been away on vacation a while and you notice details like how much the wisteria on the gate has grown, how the leaves on the dogwood have started to change color, and how badly the front of the house needs painting.

Ironically, I was in Port Townsend feeling far from home for the “Close to Home,” workshop led by Stuart Sipahigil, and Ray Ketcham. When my daughter asked if I’d learned a lot in the workshop, I told her “yes, but not in the way that you might think.” “Close to Home,” as Stuart presented it, is a concept, not a recipe. Stuart isn’t interested in teaching anyone how to operate their equipment so as to achieve better photographs, he’s interested in helping photographers see differently; to see their own personal environments as ripe with possibilities for wonderful images.

To that end, he and Ray offered exercises such as plunking each of us in a spot for one hour with the instruction that we were not to move – not even 10 feet. When Stuart pointed at me and then at the bike rack sitting at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the not yet open bookstore on the main road in “downtown”, I looked at him incredulously. Seeing nothing immediately, I asked if I could at least climb on the bike rack (which I did). Anyone who knows me knows that asking me to stand anywhere for one hour is a major challenge.  Of course the bike rack perch yielded more than I could have initially imagined and I actually came up with a couple images that I really like! 


Each of us was also given a personal assignment that we had half a day to work on. I was given the boat harbor – not the harbor in town where visiting tourists moor their pleasure craft, but the working harbor south of town.  I had no idea what to expect there. I arrived early Saturday morning fortified by a large cup of coffee. Four hours of making photographs later, after searching for and trying to effectively represent the “soul” of the place, I desperately needed food. Making my way up the hill to the farmer’s market, I plopped down in the grass in the sunshine with an enormous fresh salmon sandwich for a brief respite, digesting the morning and hoping that the memory cards in my bag held the feeling I had discovered in the harbor. I had so much fun that I think it would be safe to bet that I’ll be found haunting docks in Seattle some time soon to add to that collection of images.

While I spent the days in Port Townsend, I spent nights sleeping in front of a fire in a rough summer shelter/cabin about 45 minutes away with only the mice for company. The cabin sits on a piece of land my family has owned since I was seven. I left there early and returned after dark every evening. I watched the sun turn the Olympics pink in the mornings above a layer of low fog sitting on the mirror smooth water. In the context of “Close to Home”, I saw all of this with different eyes and realized that though nothing there is unfamiliar, it can all be fresh and new every day if I only open my eyes and pay attention. I think Stuart will be happy to know that I ended up, on my last morning, camera in hand, at 7am, lying in the wet sand of the beach.

 
If I had to choose one image from the whole weekend, it would be this one.

One morning, as I drove towards Port Townsend on Center Road for the umpteenth time this year, I was struck by the beauty of the valley and pulled over. I jumped out of my car, imagining the photograph I wanted to make. To my disappointment, I evidently terrified the cows grazing in the foreground of my photograph, and they took off running away from me before I had a chance to press the shutter once. I fired off a few frames anyway because it was a pretty scene, but it wasn’t what I was after. As I turned to walk back to my car, I noticed the cows on the other side of the road with the fog in the trees behind them. Contrary to their pals across the road, they apparently were not afraid of me, as they actually approached the fence separating us. I giggled to myself as I stood there, thinking about how all I needed to do was stop, slow down and pay attention. Though this image was made outside the framework of the workshop, for me it captures the essence of what Stuart was trying to convey.

Lyon

As a 17 year old, I spent part of a school year homesick and lonely in Lyon, largely missing the city’s charms. Living with a French family who spoke no english and attending a local “lycée”, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I truly couldn’t appreciate it. I arrived just after Christmas to snow on the ground, which, in Seattle, is a rather rare treat. In Lyon however, the snow sat on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets getting filthy and smelly (think lots of dogs, few parks and lots of poop mixed with melting snow on the sidewalks). It was cold and gross and I had no one to talk to as I walked to and from school trying not to slip in the brown slush. With only two years of high school french under my belt, I sat through eight hours of philosophy a week, falling asleep in class nearly every day from the sheer exhaustion of trying to understand what was being said.

Returning to Lyon as an adult, I’m always surprised at how much it offers. For the last 20 years one of my Irish cousins and her husband have lived just outside the city, giving me reason to come back on several occasions. Usually, its been a stopover to meet her and her family to head off on some crazy adventure with our combined lot of six children. But this time, with the kids all well on their way to grown, I arrived to spend some time with her, her husband and sister. It had been over 10 years since I’d seen any of them, so we had a lot to catch up on. No grand adventures were planned, just being together.

Mornings usually found us long at the kitchen table munching croissants and drinking coffee regardless of the schemes concocted the night before. Whatever it was seemed to take on less urgency on the heels of yet another 2am bedtime. Some time after noon, we’d all of a sudden realize that the day was escaping and come up with an improvised plan based on how many hours remained until dinner. On one outing into town we checked out an area called “the docks” – previously warehouses along the river – which is being completely redone to house clubs, cutting edge furniture and interior design stores that cater to a hip, young, multi-cultural, international set.

An orange cube building initially caught my attention, but at further inspection, the buildings on either side matched the orange cube with their own innovative but less outrageously colorful elements.

We wandered through the medieval warren, “Vieux Lyon”, with its narrow alleys, covered walkways, and secret passages built to protect bolts of silk, (an industry for which Lyon was known up until some time in the 19th century). Theoretically, we were trying to decide where to eat dinner but got sidetracked by ice cream in a central plaza near the river, which gave us the opportunity to spend more time teasing each other, laughing and telling stories. But this is Lyon, and meals are serious business here, so after wandering and window shopping a little more, we retrieved warmer clothing to ward off the evening chill and launched ourselves into the evening’s next culinary adventure.

Some time since 1979, Lyon became home to a collective of artists who paint giant murals on the walls of the very ordinary urban residential buildings that line the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Now, every other block sports a building or two painted with elaborate trompe l’oeil designs and enormous pictures of life in Lyon. I’d seen a few small, decrepit versions of these in the old part of town, but crossing the river, I looked up, stunned to see the playful, colorful paintings ornamenting the same buildings I had trudged by daily lamenting to myself the dreariness of this town where I’d landed.

After four days of hanging out with cousins, exploring the country lanes near their home as well as the contrasting newer and older parts of Lyon, I headed off on an early morning train to Italy, the second leg of my pilgrimage to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in too long.

Saying goodbye, we vowed to do this again sooner. It was a new way of being together for all of us. No major plans, no destinations, no need to entertain young children, just hanging out, talking, eating and being. As I’ve said, I’m still learning how to do this thing, and I can’t say that there weren’t moments when I looked at the clock and thought, “Are we going to do anything today?” without an accompanying feeling of anxiety that indeed, we might not! In retrospect, I look back and think how silly that thought was. The idea behind it is that “if I’m all the way over here in France, shouldn’t I be doing something?” And being all the way over here in Seattle, I look at that and think, “how ridiculous.” Those memories of watching the royal wedding at 1am after finishing dinner somewhere close to midnight, sitting at breakfast until after noon and grilling steaks in the back yard are the ones that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the images from the cool trompe l’oeil paintings.

On Vulnerability

Since beginning this post almost two weeks ago, so much has shifted that I’m not sure I know where to start anymore. Yesterday, I sat down to write and got sidetracked reading my friend Jeffrey Chapman’s blog post and the comments following it. What I had already written seemed directly connected to what I was witnessing on Jeffrey’s blog. I was writing about watching Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability prior to my recent travels… that it must have set a tone for the way that I traveled throughout the next three weeks.

Having traveled a fair bit in France and Italy, I have a decent repertoire of memories to draw from. This time, something felt different. It wasn’t until I reflected upon the possibility that I was doing it differently that it all started to make sense.

Jeffrey’s post elicited a landslide of comments. Thoughtful and sensitive, full of depth and very personal, they came from the heart… The original blog post itself was unusual. In it, he was open and vulnerable about personal grief and loss. It was this vulnerability that elicited the ensuing rare conversation, which I found refreshing, exciting and heart-warming.

Waiting for the TGV to Lyon

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Family 4th of July

Returning to Seattle from a long weekend with family and fireworks, a quick summertime post seems a relevant detour from the travel narrative…

For years, I”ve loaded my tripod into the car next to coolers and shopping bags full of more chips, marshmallows, hot dogs and soda than anyone (or maybe just me) can possibly imagine eating. Alongside sleeping bags, dog beds, dogs and kids, I squeeze my camera and personal belongings into the remaining corners and head off to our family’s rustic shelter on an undeveloped piece of land bordering a pristine bay. Continue reading