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?

“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.

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

Paris, continued…

The other morning, while writing about turning 50, the image of a pretzel came to mind. No, I don’t feel like a pretzel, but the dot to dot path through my daily life seems to trace a similar shape. Only rarely do I allow myself the liberty of locking onto one of those dots and allowing it to lead me away from this prescribed circuit. Between professional and personal photography projects, writing, parenting, selling eye wear, outdoor adventuring, buying groceries for teen-age appetites, and failing at all attempts at domestic order, I feel pulled so many directions that if I become completely absorbed in any one, I will more than likely drop a thread that forms part of the weave and find myself dealing with the consequences later. At least that’s how it seems most of the time.

Having recently spent 3 weeks traveling, I know that the world doesn’t come to an end when I let go, but translating that into being home AND letting go is a bigger challenge. Being home and making space to pursue what calls me rather than simply falling back into the well-worn ruts of “what I’ve always done”. For the last 20 years, I’ve allowed my children’s “needs” to dictate the pace and parameters of my life. Now its time for that to change. The line a pretzel follows goes first in one direction, then another, overlapping and doubling back upon itself. In then end, a graceful shape is formed… a cohesive whole. If I stop and dwell a while at any of the points upon that line, the whole will not be impacted. The next point will still be there to guide me back toward the center, only to be drawn away and back again. The weave may change, but I don’t have to hold all of the threads anymore.

I write all of this in Seattle after rereading Parisian journal entries and editing more photographs from a month ago.  I smiled to myself noting the remaining mild discomfort of being on my own in Paris, footloose and completely free. I had forgotten that I felt that way on day 2. I wrote that I was having a hard time with the idea of no agenda and that I was feeling the need for some kind of “organizing principle” around which to orient. While my memory, and the photographs, clearly attest to the fact that I had no difficulty wandering here and there as ideas came to me, I was also up against some internal resistance to doing just exactly that. Continue reading

Paris Day 1

A little over a year ago, I stopped writing what was intended to be a daily post. Shortly before I stopped writing, a volcano erupted in Iceland. While claiming that the volcano’s eruption bears responsibility for my lack of blogging productivity might be a stretch, its a pretty good story…

In truth, my 365 day project ran out of gas. It might have been different if the volcano had stayed quiet. I was scheduled to fly to Paris on April 18, ultimately making my way to Genoa for an inspiring and challenging week long photography workshop with David DuChemin and Jeffrey Chapman. But I stayed in Seattle. I spent a week with a packed suitcase in the middle of the floor. My morning routine involved drinking a latte with a phone to my ear, trying to find a flight from the west coast of the United States to anywhere in Europe that was operating and wasn’t oversold. It didn’t happen. I finally threw in the towel and called in my travel insurance. A couple months later, CSA sent a check for everything I had spent that wasn’t reimbursed by the airline. In the mean time, I stopped writing daily blog posts and confined my disappointment to the pages of a moleskine. While I appreciated the Seattle’s beauty walking through the Arboretum and along Lake Washington, and I tried really hard to recognize that there is a time and place for everything, I was having a really difficult time finding my daily routine as inspiring as France and Italy.

It took a few days before I was ready to start unpacking that suitcase. I carefully placed the bag with gifts for family and friends on a shelf in my bedroom, not knowing when I would deliver them, but vowing to doing so. The suitcase went back to the storage room in the basement.

Fast forward one year: A rolling duffel bag sat on the floor with piles of clothing and camera gear all around it for a week as I decided what was going and what was staying. I finally took the bag of gifts off the shelf, made a nest for it among my clothes, zipped and locked the bag. The heavy pack containing laptop, external hard drive, camera, lenses and other critical items went on my back.

Continue reading

I’m Really Not Going?

Making a Statement - the rooster at Clean Greens farm showing off his plumage

Bear with me for a moment… As I sit here typing this instead of cleaning up the mess in the other room and downstairs, it is approximately 4:30pm in Lodi, Italy. A week ago, I had my daughter’s bedroom floor covered with my packing mess. Its still there.

This morning I couldn’t help saying, “a week ago, I thought I’d be on my way to my friend’s home in the countryside outside Milan to have dinner and spend the night tonight, and instead I get to clean my house. That’s a lousy trade.” My daughter informed me that if I spend my time thinking about what I thought I’d be doing every day instead of what I am doing, its just going to bum me out. She’s right, and, to a certain extent, I can’t help it. I spent six months gearing up and planning for this adventure. Continue reading