A diary entry from a week ago:
Yesterday was sunny and I lay on my back on a warm rock near one of those big perfect maple trees that grow alone near houses. The sun was so bright against the white New England clapboards it made my eyes water. Above me were lazy summer clouds and high, high up, swallows playing in the wind. The air smelled like lilacs and grass; redwing blackbirds argued in the trees and a solitary cricket sang under the porch. It was as if my former life were colliding with the present one: all the sensory impressions were as familiar and readable as my own skin, while my actual self seemed to be elsewhere. I felt like a ghost.
Being a bit more involved with Flickr and looking at a lot of photography this year has made me somewhat more intentional and thoughtful about my own efforts in the medium. Because I live with a professional who's so skilled and talented, I've never taken my own photography all that seriously, though it's been a big part of this blog forever. This time in Mexico I was less interested in simply recording what I was seeing - though I did quite a bit of that, of course - and found myself being more experimental about making images, as well as looking for series of things that might make interesting blog posts.
I'm fascinated with surfaces, and complex visual fields. Mexico City offers more visual richness and complexity than any place I've ever been, and I think I was trying to capture that feeling in the images I took. Somewhere around the midpoint of the trip I realized I was making a series of reflected self-portraits; some are more successful than others but I think all of them say something about what was happening there with my eyes, brain, heart. My personal favorite of these is the one at the bottom, taken in the outdoor garden at the Museum of Anthropology. What do you think?
1. Ladies' room mirror at a restaurant
2. Parque Chapultepec
3. Anthropology Museum
4. Waiting for Metrobus
5. Street level window, National Gallery of Art
6. Anthropology Museum
Today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, I'm thinking of my mother-in-law, Marjorie. She was a young girl in Konya then, with two younger brothers. Unlike many Armenian men, her father survived several years before he was murdered by the Turks, because he had language skills they needed. After his death, Marjorie's mother was helped by American missionaries working with Near East Relief: she and the three children were taken by boat along the eastern Mediterranean coast, finally ending up in Alexandria, Egypt. There her mother, a trained nurse, ran an orphanage for Armenian children. Marjorie, already skilled in many languages, was a favorite helper of the missionaries, and was eventually sent to Beirut for her high school education and college at the American University, where her future husband, my father-in-law, was teaching.
Her brothers went to Switzerland and Brazil. Marjorie and her husband and young son immigrated to America in the late 1940s; their second son, my husband, was born in 1950, and a girl was born five years later. Even after hearing their stories firsthand for many years, it's still hard for me to imagine how difficult that move and cultural adjustment must have been, especially for her. But harder still is the knowledge that she witnessed the terrible events of 1915 and subsequent years, as nearly every adult Armenian male was killed outright, and the remaining families forced to march across the desert, most of whom did not survive.
My mother-in-law did not talk about those times. Most survivors did not; when you read accounts pieced together by later generations the writers - our age or younger - all say the same thing: "my mother -- my aunt -- my grandmother -- didn't want to talk about it." Marjorie, a lifelong Quaker, always said she didn't want to perpetuate hatred; she had seen too much of tribal feuds and ethnic and religious conflict; she wanted her children to grow up in peace, without thoughts of hatred or revenge burdening their hearts.
So she bore those scars inside herself. We knew they were there, and in peripheral ways we could see the damage they had done, but she lived as a witness and spokesperson for peace and non-violence, especially in her later years. I loved and admired her, and miss her a lot. My husband and I keep her memory alive with the foods she loved to cook, a few favorite objects and textiles, and stories about funny or poignant or typical things we remember: we often say to each other, "Your mother would love this." In fact we said that recently, at our favorite restaurant in Mexico City, as we spent a leisurely afternoon on the upstairs stone terrace lined with pots of flowers, eating perfect baba ghanoush on zaatar-dusted pita fresh from the oven. She loved flowers, color, well-prepared food in the company of friends and family, starched white linen, fine needlework, books, children, travel, laughter. You never would have known, unless you really knew her.
Well, the past month has literally flown by. And now it's April 20th, and I'm back in Montreal after almost three weeks spent elsewhere: first Mexico City, then in our former home of Vermont for the opening of J.'s photography exhibition. In the meantime, spring has finally arrived in the northeast too, and not a moment too soon, because everyone was starting to go completely bonkers. On April 9th, we flew into Montreal looking down on fields covered with snow and a frozen river, but within a couple more days almost everything had melted. We're back on our bikes, and feeling hopeful.
I'm glad to be back here at The Cassandra Pages, too. Taking a break was a good idea; I've come back with stories and photos and ideas, and also some greater insight about my relationship to the online world: what's healthy for me, and what isn't. The blog definitely is, so I look forward to resuming the conversation.
This silly picture was taken at a photography show in Mexico City devoted to the art of a special group of street photographers who take photos of visitors at festivals and shrines - historically, they use large-format sheet-film cameras and deliver the finished photographic print to the subject within a short time. Often the photographer has some sort of backdrop or set-up -- like this painted airplane - which forms a souvenir record of the visit. We had seen such photographers and their set-ups at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe last year, (see below) but had no idea it was a genre with a long history in Mexico.
I love the kitsch-y quality of these photos and almost wish now that we'd had our pictures taken at this stand last year with the former Pope, a donkey and a sombrero, all those Mexican colors, and not one but two Virgins!
Actually, the black-and-white photographs exhibited were often poignant as well as amusing. There was even a full-sized white horse in the exhibition, waiting to smile over your shoulder. Who could resist?
There are different forms of progress, or so it seems to me.
Incremental progress is like this quilt: you follow a progression based on certain necessary steps, you keep at it, a little bit every day, or every week, over a long time, and eventually you arrive at your goal. It's like a long walk from here to there, or the slow action of water on rocks. Sometimes it's arduous and more uphill, with twists and turns; sometimes easier and more linear, but you usually get somewhere close to where you thought you were headed if you are dedicated and steady. Maybe the goal is a project, or a degree, or some sort of change you want to achieve, like getting in better shape or becoming a kinder person. Whatever it is, you aren't going to get there overnight, but by a long series of small steps.
Then there's another kind of progress that's more like an earthquake; the whole mountain shifts, a faultline opens, the view changes, and suddenly you realize you aren't where you were before, or maybe that the you who is here now isn't the you that was there, then.
This second kind of movement may not feel like progress as much as upheaval, transition, turmoil, major change or even disaster, but when the dust settles - which can take years or even decades - you finally see more clearly what's happened. Life, whether we wanted it to or not, has pushed us into a new place.
My life has held hundreds of the first kind of processes: incremental projects that have resulted in something fairly concrete or tangible, or have taught me something important or changed me, even if the goals shifted a bit during the process or I encountered surprises or difficulties along the way. For the most part I've sought them out deliberately; I've put myself on those paths, or agreed to them more or less consciously, and then tried to see them out to a conclusion, or as lifelong commitments. It's one thing to make a quilt, another to take up the piano again as an adult, another to embark on a marriage or parenthood -- but they all involve decisions, persistence, and faith that the process itself is worthwhile, even if we encounter great difficulties, even if the end result isn't always what we hoped for or looks an awful lot like failure. Actually, with some practice at these projects, and at learning from them, you come to accept the failures as part of the path itself -- as teachers in their own right -- and you stop disliking them (or yourself) so much.
But the other kind of movement is very different. These major shifts have happened to me every decade or so: life takes a certain direction, both because of choices and external conditions or events, and then follows a kind of arc as that particular combination of choices and circumstances plays itself out. Then something changes, and a new, different reality announces itself, sometime suddenly, but more often quietly at first, and then with more and more insistence. At the same time, I sense that something else is ending or coming to a conclusion. Sometimes I don't notice the signals as positive promptings, but instead I notice resistance. That resistance can be to something old that I don't seem to want to do anymore, or it can be resistance to something new that feels unwanted, or represents loss or too much change. Pretty soon, it becomes clear that I'm at a crossroads, like it or not, and I'm going to have to look at it squarely in the face and do the work that the major change represents and calls for.
It's a lot easier to see these things in hindsight.
Loosely speaking, my twenties were about figuring out what I wanted to do in life, and ended with moving to New England, starting my design business, meeting and falling in love with J., getting married, and then combining our businesses into a partnership.
My thirties were about building that marriage, our home, and our professional career, and ended with a personal crisis about my own creative and spiritual life: in other words, I felt the need to step back a little bit from the intense coupledom with which I'd been consumed, and reconnect with my individual self -- to figure out some more about who I was, and pick up some important threads that I'd dropped.
My forties, then, were about becoming a serious writer and working on that very hard; studying piano and voice again; exploring my spirituality; and beginning to confront my deepest fears about mortality and loss - and trying to balance all of that with my marriage, our busy professional career, family relationships, friendships, community work and social activism.
In the next decade we faced the decline and death of three of our four parents, and moved to a new country, giving up our home, rural life, and many of our possessions. My fifties were about actual illness, loss, death, personal change and upheaval -- but they were also about writing a book, the internet, blogging, and a whole new realm of possibilities for sharing one's creative life.
That period of time has resulted in a new home, new friends, a large body of work, a new publishing business, and new responsibilities and challenges (the choir, the contemplative group I facilitate, bilingualism, travel to different places.) These years have felt chaotic and difficult but also richly rewarding, and probably represent the greatest period of change and growth in my life. It's only in the last two years that I've felt like I was actually settling in up here, feeling pretty comfortable and relatively adjusted to urban life in a foreign place - which Quebec really is - where I will never fully "belong" and have to find that sense of home within myself, instead.
And now I feel the ground shifting yet again, two years into my sixties...
(to be continued)
Last night I had a dream in which I was meeting someone who seemed to be interviewing me as part of a college application process; it seemed that I was trying to get a degree in English. In the dream, I knew that I had already completed most of my studies - maybe three out of the four years - but now, with some anxiety, was trying to go back and finish, many years later. (The whole notion of time was rather shaky in this scenario.) Anyway, the interviewer, who was an Indian man, was showing me the pages of a large book of maps, and as we turned them I asked questions about India, and different kinds of food appeared on the pages -- real food. One of these was an oily, delicious, puffy bread with a spicy meat, onion, and tomato topping, and we broke off pieces and ate them.
Then he asked me what the titles were of my most favorite books, and try as I might in the dream, I couldn't remember a single one.
Abandoned farm near Lake Champlain.
Fort Montgomery, on the western side of Lake Champlain near Rouse's Point, built at one of the northernmost strategic points of the American part of the lake, to protect against an attack from British Canada (1840s-1870s.)
Snow drifts, eastern side of Lake Champlain near Rouse's Point.
Still life with donkey, copper vase, and Christmas greens. Pen on paper, 9" x 6".
It's a moment, in a particular season, a particular life. My father-in-law's terracotta donkey from Damascus; an Egyptian copper tray and vase that was a gift from my sister-in-law; greens and holly brought from my mother's garden in central New York, where my own family has lived for two centuries.
Our marriage brought together two cultures. When my parents-in-law were young people in the Middle East, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived together in the ancient cities -- Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem, and so many others -- in relative harmony. They came here after World War II because they could see what was starting to happen. Over the time of our own marriage, we've seen the last bits of that harmony disintegrate. Yes, there are individuals and organizations that are still trying, and some places that are less war-torn than others, but as I drew this picture last night I felt the sadness of that little mute donkey, worn smooth by the touch of hands, as well as gratitude that in my own life I've been able to experience some of the richness that intercultural living imparts -- a richness that I think is meant to be our cherished heritage as human beings on a shared planet.
May it be so, someday, not too far away.
Along with several other writers, my friend Teju Cole was asked by Aperture, "What kind of pressure does photography place on the written word today?" His answer addresses, in part, my own question: what is the point of trying to make beautiful images -- images which reference the past in their reliance on paper, ink, old techniques, and use as their subject everyday objects -- in a world so torn by violence and the pressure of the exterior on our interior lives?
If my work and my life were completely consumed with that interiority, or with the preservation of some sort of peace and the continuation of comfort, that would be problematic for me. But it's precisely in everyday objects and scenes that I find echoes of the political, and I am trying to find ways to explore that without co-opting the grimness or violence or fear of the exterior world. To me, making dark and violent art is too obvious an answer, and often veers off into the cynical. During this past year, I've been feeling my way toward other ways of expressing this predicament in which I find myself.
Family Coffeepot and Fossil: Thinking of Gaza. Acrylic on paper, 2014.
Most of us, in this hemisphere anyway, live our lives in relative comfort but in an atmosphere of anxiety and awareness - though that is a relative term - of the tenuousness of life, freedom, and peace for a great majority of others. More and more of us are aware of the ways in which our lifestyles impact the lives of that majority, and how we are complicit. By the same token, our participation in these systems of suffering and oppression is not, for the most part, chosen: we and our tax dollars are being used by the systems of power, and our governments are involved in actions we would never willingly condone.
How does art intersect with that reality, and that knowledge? How do we, as artists and writers, move forward with integrity, with hope, but also acknowledging and honoring the long tail of the past in which the search for beauty and meaning has been vital to human life and culture?
Teju writes (he's talking about photography, but we can say the same for the other arts:)
I want images that address the predicaments of the present moment, in a political sense, but that also allow for poetry and lyricism. In any case, those things may not be necessarily divorced from each other: paper has to come from somewhere; the equipment used to make a camera is made from materials that are traded on the world market, including materials that come from conflict zones. Machines have lyricism (once we learn to see it) and poetry comes at a cost (if we are willing to admit it). The connection this has to my writing? I try to apply those same goals (of politics and poetry) to the written word, too. So, we may be awash in images and words these days, but poetry still matters. It is still as elusive as it ever was, and, just as ever, it is still worth chasing down.