Nothing Is Simple These Days

Nothing is simple these days.

I went downtown with Syd tonight to watch our fellow citizens demonstrate their civic right to peacefully protest something they fear. I watched the vast majority fight tooth and nail to keep things positive. They reprimanded the masked protestor who tried to light the garbage can on fire. They chased away the hothead who throw a projectile at the police. But all it takes is ten bad seeds per thousand to shift the meaning of it all. The organizers tried to keep it peaceful, but peaceful isn't the reality right now.

No, nothing is simple these days.

But There is Life

In my last chat with my grandmother, a couple months before she passed away, we were talking about my father’s passing, my family, and the nature of grief. She said, “Human empathy begins when you experience death, when you understand, as you get older, that everyone you meet is grieving in some way”. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was one of those statements that gave words to a feeling that I had felt since I was child, but hadn’t been able to find the right combination of words to express. And last week, when I flew out to Hudson, CO, for her burial and memorial, I thought a lot about that old feeling and her words.

I watched as my uncles and aunts all experienced a second formative loss in under two years. I felt a gnawing, relentless sense that another part of my father’s story, and consequently my family’s story, had vanished and was now irretrievable. And I watched, at the burial ceremony, as my cousins’ children, ranging from under a year to just shy of eight years old, watched the expressions of their parents and grandparents, listened to the hymns, and took in, for the first time, one of life’s inevitable and highly codified traditions. They were silent and perplexed and unknowing. They seemed to mimic the rolling waves of somberness, laughter, sorrow, and joy. And as I watched them, my grandmother’s words were on my mind.

After the ceremony, we returned to my uncle and aunt’s stunning 20-acre property, sitting on the wind-swept Colorado plains at the foot of the Rockies. The adults drank coffee, swapped stories, socialized and prepared, each in their own way, for the coming day’s memorial service at my grandmother’s church in Denver. And the kids ran carefree and wild, with boundless energy. They had seen a glimpse of grief through the foggy glass of childhood, but were now fully liberated by an insatiable lust for the most primitive joys of life: laughter, self-expression, community, exercise, and family.

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The last year and a half have been hard, overwhelmingly so at times, for my family and I. I just miss my dad so much. There’s at least one or two times a day where I see or hear something that makes me reach for my phone to shoot a text or share an article with him. I look at Sydney and my brother, regularly, and realize how vastly and permanently the landscape of my life could change in the beating of a heart. I’ve laid in bed, half-awake, my mind spinning with the words of C.S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief so felt like fear”.  And I’ve fought the urge to bury myself alive in one of the truths that lies at the heart of my grandmother’s words: that everyone is grieving and, when they’re not, you can bet your bottom dollar that grief is waiting just around the bend. There is pain, there is sorrow, there is grief, and there is suffering in this world. It is in the air we breathe. It is all around us, all of the time, as good as we are at ignoring it, at repressing it, and shutting it out. It is as undeniable as it eternal. And despite the comfort of our friends, family, and loved ones, we live alone unto ourselves, solitary witnesses to our own vast, swirling, infinitely complex inner lives.

But that is only part of the truth that undergirds her words, and to deny it, to get lost in it would be to deny the fullness and validity of life. There is a deep and earnest beauty imbedded in the very heart of this world, in this grief, and in this mutual understanding of loss that binds us and that defines just what it means to be human. We are fellow sailors, bound together by love and loss, sailing on a ship that whips through space at 19 miles per second. We are here and we are alive. And it is now and that is enough.

There will be grief, but there will beauty. There will be loss, but there will be love. There will be suffering, but there will be joy. There will be death, but there is life.

I Whisper Terlingua

I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between words and images since I started exploring photography. This intrigue has usually taken the form of short self-penned musings or poems or quotes/lyrics that serve as a captions for images I’ve made. The inspirational and relational trigger for a specific quote or piece of writing is usually vague, even to myself, and the interplay between the two is often oblique. I’ve come to view this pairing of words and images as a sort of self-administered Rorschach test. As I edit the image, my mind flutters between thoughts and quotes and inspiration until it lands on something that sticks. 

Lately I’ve wanted to explore this inspirational interplay on an interpersonal level. So I recently asked an immensely talented poet, my good friend Justin Cox, to collaborate on a little creative project with me. The rules were simple: I would create five new images and send them to Justin. He would write a short poem to accompany each image. Then, he would pen five original poems and send them my way. And I would create five images inspired by each of the poems.

We’re now at the halfway point of our project. Last month, I walked around SE Portland, shot a single roll of film on my Hasselblad, and sent five of the twelve edited exposures to Justin.  All of the images, in retrospect, were bound together as fragmented glimpses of urban alienation and its relationship with the ever-evolving language of technology. I would have expected, in return, some sort of Delillo-esque commentary on the price of the pace of our information systems, of the weight and psychic ramifications of technological advancement. But what I received back from Justin were poignant, intensely personal, and gut-wrenchingly beautiful vignettes that explored the intimate nature of human connection. I read them over and over again. The characters, set in narrative pairs, strive desperately to connect with their beloved, whether with their lover or sibling. It reads as an inverse extrapolation from the detached, urban theme of the images, but complimentary in a haunting and timeless way.

We decided to title this first half of the collaboration “I Whisper Terlingua”, a line from one of the poems, in which the narrator agonizes over the lingering absence of her lover, until his eventual return, when “ghosts dance on the wind and then the stillness and the silence is complete”. I’ve spent time analyzing the ink of this Rorschach experiment and attempting to decipher the conscious and unconscious lines of interpersonal inspiration between the images and the words, and have eventually just resigned myself to revel in the beautiful ambiguity of it all. And I hope you will as well. I’m certainly looking forward to finding the final five poems in my inbox sometime soon. But until then, here’s the first half of our collaboration, “I Whisper Terlingua”…

 

As I lay in the light fulfilled

As this joyous ocean kisses my feet,

As I lay flush from the heat of the forge,

I whisper Terlingua – language of rustling horses and broken bodies,

Language of the soul lost and found.

 

I, as the sun rises, watch him moving from this world to the next,

From sex’s electric lust and utter gibberish, to the stoic silence of the unbroken road.

In these final moments together, I luxuriate in the tendons of his feet

As he buckles his belt.

His spotless boots, his thick, unruly hair, all that he is that springs from within sings himself,

And his is the insistence of cicadas in a land of ghosts.

 

My eyes now look to his leaving across the dirt lot.

Hands that cupped my face in the dark and declared me beloved, blood,

Now hide in his pockets.

His shoulders stooped to the cold morning, chin tucked, eyes of fire hidden now

Beneath a Stetson brim.

 

When he disappears I stop breathing, and silence drifts into place,

Hanging out in the distance between us

Ungodly and alone.

Then the bold black cab feels the whip crack; gorgeous roar shatters the window;

Smoke careens into the sky; chuff; metal whine; gravel skitters and pops beneath the load

When the great unknown lurches into motion.

 

And when the last taillight disappears behind the curtain, I gasp

as the loss slams into my chest.

 

Three days later I haven’t moved,

but, damn, how the gaudy future returns, smiling, preposterous.

Dawn alights. My rapturous hands grasp fistfuls of shirt, curl into the quickening sun.

He whispers, Terlingua, against my lips and we kiss,

And kiss, and kiss.

 

In the half-light of early evening the cicadas sing in the land of love

and ghosts dance on the wind and then

the stillness and the silence is complete.

nothing depends on them

lingering useless

except

dew clings like fresh sweat

intimacy insists

they glisten they wait

a casual rebuke to fear

My love, let down thy hair for me to rise,
And I will climb with lover’s strength to – oh,
Apologies my love, I spoke unwisely;
In haste, I failed to – well, to you I’ll go.
My love? Can you unlock the iron door
Which bars my sturdy arms from yours?
Or maybe buzz me in? Oh, hell – so sure
Was I of limbs I risked – oh well, less is more.
The door is sprung! Oh, joy! Now we alone
Can make our two hearts – oh, goddamn it all!
Is this your sister? I see, I mean – sorry.
She is distressed. So be it. Love’s thrall knows
No bounds, for sense by love is made a mess --
Far better limbless love, than armed heartlessness.

i carry your impediment with me (i carry your avian

neglect) I am lost without (it is in a tree

in a tangled skein of wet heartache; and whatever

we do is soulful and senseless, my agony)

                                                                          

i want your dirt (for you are filthy my feet, foot) i love

your heel (for heel is calf calf is knee)

smeared thigh you are whatever a leg has always meant

and whatever whole is is, no more than I, you

 

now, here is the sweet decay of plastic molds

(here is the hopeless haphazard body of beauty

and the grasp of the depth of the love that we’re in; which kisses

wordless wounds fresh or obvious)

and this (we) embrace (life) is a furious mess

 

i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)

 

I heard the Peal of Laughter first—
It burst into the Room
with heartthrob Heat—Soul skipping beats
Alone—Awake—Aflame—

The morning Dew—refreshed the Blades
of Grass beyond the Glass
The Air had gathered—crisp and new—
Within the Room was Joy—

I cracked the Door to lightening Dark
and there—in mid air on
off the Bed—there and there she was—
My sister—Emmy Rose—

It seems to me Geometry
is just a frame—and Love
aglow within cannot be held
or kept—but keeps us Forever—