I’ve just published my new photo essay, “Colorado: Journey to Her Alzheimer’s,” on Steller.co. It’s a personal story but judging by how very many people have someone they love with this disease, I hope this might be a comfort. We are most definitely not alone in this thing.
It was morning, and I had taken my father in law to the beach, one last time. I took the solid, cedar box to the balcony overlooking the sea. He had died nearly two years before, but our family was unable to return to Seattle for a memorial.
I took my father-in-law with me as I moved and traveled. He was always quiet, as usual. I teased him that perhaps he’d see some pretty girls on the beach, if only his view weren’t obscured by the box.
He enjoyed the sunrise more than me.
Never much of a morning person, so getting up early to show him the sunrise one last time was, I hoped, not lost on him, although he never really said anything about it. I felt the sunset would surely be even better, even if only one of us was actually awake.
Even big clouds didn’t elicit a response.
I was sure the evening sky would at least spark some conversation… but perhaps he was full from the dinner I had.
At last, the thunder!
At last the excitement arrived. A giant thunder cloud, poring down its feelings onto the ocean before us! The air was blanket heavy with moisture. I clapped when the thunder came, but alas, he did not.
By morning, steaming coffee in hand, I waved goodbye as he waited on the deck, and wandered out onto the rough shore, huge trees adorning it in grassy, wooden necklaces.
I felt a little guilt for leaving him for so long, and that, well, he couldn’t see what I was seeing anymore… or could he?
The brave roots of this enormous tree were so thrilled with their new view! Sky! Clouds! Each other! Roots cannot normally see each other, I am told.
Some trees snuck a rock or two in between themselves, just for kicks. I told him this when I returned some time later. He has not made any new coffee for me.
The glorious blue sky sang even louder than the surf, and my friend, you’ve never seen happier roots than I did that day.
Even the sideways wind got in on it, gurgling with the little tide, tiptoeing across the wood – here, on the beach, and back there, in the box, where my father-in-law waited, quiet, as usual.
My favorite: being with the little ones I like to call, “The Waiters.” Not like people who bring spaghetti to the table – no. I mean, the things that seem to make a living waiting. Yes. The rocks.
But before I could dwell too long on the various hums and sighs of the still-waiting stones and pebbles, the sun arrived – or rather, we here arrived to it.
Boulders are rocks, too, yes, but they don’t seem to wait. They are too busy ducking the waves. At least, that was what I told my father-in-law later.
And this is how we said goodbye, me from the shore, and he from inside the box.
A few years ago I found $50 I had tucked into a dictionary long before. I had hidden it there years before as a little gift from me to me, which I knew I’d forget putting there but would find one day. “When I do”, my past self thought, “I will probably feel loved and remembered.” I went to the bank and pulled out the money, tucking it in between the letters L and M, tucked it away for a future self who didn’t yet exist.
Two years later, as I was looking up the spelling for Langoliers, (a horrible movie!), the bill sussurred out from between the pages and tickled itself all the way down my legs and onto the floor. I felt the kindness and compassion of my former self flooding into the present moment, like a sweet, chalky perfume I’d once loved and nearly forgotten. It was me who had so thoughtfully made this effort, who who really cared about me all the way back then. I felt swept up in compassion from my own, former self. In that moment, I was at a time of struggle which I could never have foreseen back then.
It’s much easier to look backward – after all, we know the person we were before. Or do we? And looking into our future selves is even more nebulous – we know we’ll be the same person, sort of, but that person does not really yet exist. In six months from now, maybe we’ll have put on a pound or two over the holidays, but still be basically happy. Or perhaps will we find it in 16 years, after, who knows, a major financial windfall and the start of a new love affair, or after we’ve strangely gotten into the most amazing shape of our lives and finally gotten that job we always want?
Or maybe, when we stretch out our thoughts to ourselves in the future, we’ll reach into a void of pain and loss. When we stretch out to the future, we grasp the wispy suggestion of what and who we might in general. That person might be happy when they find this gift… but then again, she may need a little encouragement… or maybe a lot.
Sipping Coffee with Shadows
Why do self-portraits matter? Why do we really do them? Is it just to capture a moment, as if we were a tourist visiting our own lives? “Here I am, with my new hat!” Or “Look at me! I’ve in the bathroom at a fancy hotel!”
Maybe. But in a deeper way, I believe we photograph ourselves to tell ourselves our own story, to ourselves – it is always the story of I. The true purpose of self-portraits is to make a gift of ourselves to our future selves. Maybe, when we create a self-portrait, we are trying to see into our own eyes – the ones that will be, down the road, one nebulous, unknown day. When we photograph ourselves, we are talking to ourselves across time and, truly, across realities – in the moment we shoot a self-portrait, we are real – flesh and blood. But our future self is only the tiniest twinkle in our own eyes now. And if we try, yes, we can love that person. Loving our future selves will make a present day, some day, just that much sweeter.
But today, in the present moment, our past self is really only a memory, and the only proof that we lived exists in the form of photographs.
What if, some day in the future, when we really need it, we feel the hand of our real self from the past touching our lives? Who was thinking of us, loving us into the unknown days and years ahead? What if, through a self-portrait of encouragement, we make a tangible reach from the past into the current moment, when the two of us come together, our eyes looking into our own eyes, past to future, and back again? Maybe when we look into our own eyes from the past, we will feel the hair brushed from our face today, a warm hand tugging on our sleeve, an old friend arriving unexpectedly on our porch, bringing us chocolate cake on a Sunday morning for no good reason at all except that they love us?
But who does that? Who loves someone who doesn’t even exist yet? Who leaves them gifts they know they’ll find?
You do, that’s who.
And this is the real reason for self-portraits. We do them for love.
Even more so if the gift you give your future self is simply encouragement and kindness when you might need it the most. This is what I discovered last week when I found a self-portrait I’d shot two years ago in Spain. I was standing on the balcony of a beautiful room overlooking the Mediterranean coast, in Begur. I’d just attended a travel writer’s conference and we were given gorgeous accommodations in exchange for writing about the our experiences in each hotel. I couldn’t believe my life had taken me there. I couldn’t believe my feet were on that balcony and my eyes were seeing that sumptuous blue water, or that my skin was soaking in the buttery Spanish fall sunlight. I couldn’t believe my life, somehow, through some luck and a lot of hard work, had gotten me there. It was blowing my mind. I picked up a camera, not to capture a snapshot of the place. It was a private moment. I was alone, and I wanted to say something about what I felt. I wanted to talk about my life in the poignant silence of a photograph.
Yesterday I found the photo as I was looking preparing to edit something else. I didn’t even remember taking it. I opened it up and what I saw was strength, certainty, and calm in my face; I looked happy. I remember feeling as if I were resting deeply in my own perfect path, as if at last I were resting deeply in the arms of my dreams. I saw something else too – the lack of questions in my eyes. No. I saw no questions. I saw only answers. I made that self-portrait not to share where I was, though I was on a balcony in Spain, overlooking the sea. I made it as a statement of encouragement, a one-way conversation between me and me, that would occur at an unknown date in the future. That date was today.
I’m at the tail-end of two full years living nothing but questions, one tumbling across my life right another, and another, a turbulent river I can barely seem to climb out of. It’s felt as if my mind has been drowning in unknowns for so long that I’d forgotten what it’s like not only to know, but to not even need to know. I didn’t remember I was that person – the person who knew, until I looked into those eyes – my own eyes, two years before.
Yes. I feel loved and remembered, by me, by my past me.
And so, where are you? Are you strong right now? Do you have even a moment here or there that you feel certain? Happy? Strong? Confident? Or even just amused by and affectionate toward yourself? Or do you wish you did?
When you do, tell no one your plan: grab your camera and dress up a little, for yourself. Go to a place you love and feel loved – even if it’s the tiniest corner of your own kitchen. Relax in your chest. Hold the camera before you, and relax your eyes. This a private moment, between you and you. Look into and straight past the lens into your own eyes, your own soul, your own future self who will need this one day. As you look, relax your irises, feel them really relax and dilate. Then, when you feel kind and open and at ease, pick up the camera, bring it close to you, with your elbows bent – and imagine – know – you are speaking to yourself through yourself, one into another, now to then. Don’t worry about smiling. Just breathe your kindest, softest breath of gentle, loving kindness toward your own heart, and take the shot.
Don’t look at it yet. Put the camera down. If you felt uneasy or worried, put the camera down. Have a sip of tea. Look out at the yard. You live, and you are good. Shoot again when you feel you have more to say to yourself, when you feel more open, when you arrive at the feeling you want to wrap up in a soft bundle and offer it through your eyes.
Now you can review the photo if you can. Be careful not to judge yourself now – you want to stay very open and gentle in your feelings. If you would prefer a different moment, then relax, breathe, try it again. Sip that tea.
When you feel you have really captured a feeling you love and cherish that you might like to feel again one day, save it on your computer to a file called A Gift To Me, or Photos To My Future Self. If you can, email it to yourself on a certain day, or attach it to a calendar appointment 1 year from now. Surprise yourself with it. Print it, and put it in a book you know you’ll read, and label the photo like a gift card: “This too shall pass,” or “You are good,” or “Hi. It’s me. I like you.”
Save this photographic moment of encouragement somewhere you’ll be sure to find again one day. In this way, with a camera, say yes to kindness and save it for a rainy day. It’s a gift made by your hands, and your eyes, and it’s just for you, bundled up warmly in the form of a loving, thoughtful photograph.
One day, you too might feel loved and remembered by the past, who cared for you before you even existed.
If you try this, or ever have, write me and tell me your story. I’d love to hear it.
She was the first to tell me, “there are two of me.”
It was over the oatmeal I learned it. She leaned over the crisp wrapper, stripping it with her teeth, and the Captain’s lid sputtered off, tumbling onto the dirt floor.
“There are two of me now.” Buckle and crumble, she doubled over laughing. I had to admit, it was pretty funny.
My old friend, whom I had not seen in a scarce few weeks, had evidently sprouted a fascinating new problem in my absence. She scooped the lid off the floor and hastily smashed it back onto the oatmeal box, but left it just ajar. Lifting the corner of the lid, as if the tube were smiling at us both, she smirked like the box and said again, Yes! Two! Me likey! You likey?
Oatmeal Times. That was the first thought I had. What if there were some newspaper chronicling events that had occurred at the very instant of the opening of oatmeal boxes, all around the world? I felt confident that our moment, this one here, would surely rank at the top of the most interesting, a moment in which my friend of 24 years was notifying me over oatmeal that she had, in fact, recently joined forces with some other being between her ears to form a new, amalgamated her, but one that still liked oatmeal. At least that was still true, if nothing else.
Then: “Squares. No sugar. Only squares. That’s how I like my oatmeal. Old, dried, in the pan, all smooshy and caked, and then cut into squares. Oh, and cold. Old, cold squares.”
Now there are times in life when a great tragedy befalls someone we love and the cracks in their mind crash into their thoughts, and the obvious tragedy overwhelms their soul. But this was not that time. This was more then moment when you realize someone you think you know has behaviors so aberrant as to be almost hospitalizable. Eating plain, old, hard, over-mushed, squared oatmeal is certifiable, or at least, if I were in charge of the world it would be.
“Wait, let’s get back to the two of you. What the? Whozzit?”
I’d caught her mid-caffeine and she laughed until coffee threatened to tipple out her left nostril.
“Yes, oh yes. Two. I found out I have another personality when I took a personality test this weekend and I had to use two pieces of paper. It’s true.”
“Annnnd, what is your other you’s name?”
“Haccccckginnnnet and..P…Ph…it’s…Yes. Hackginget.”
“Hackginget. Your name is Hackginget.”
“Hackginger. There’s an ‘er’ on the end.”
“I see. Does Hackinget -“
“Er. Hackginger. Ly. Hackgingerly.”
“Hackgingerly? What the fuck.”
“Don’t swear in front of me. Her. Don’t swear in front of her. She’s Mennonite.”
“No need to be sorry. We can have different views.”
She returned her gaze to the innocence of oats, resting, calm and grainy, in their tubey bed. In a blurry blaze, her hand (her own hand, I presume?) snatched the box and flipped it, upside down, the entire oaty world skittering and screaming (perhaps) to the floor. Her boney tall dog appeared from nowhere, her tongue, longer than my arm, leaving only a wet trail beneath her where the oats had surrendered their will to live just a nanosecond before.
Blink. That is what I do when I am sure I’m in a dream. Blink.
I tried this my usual 18 swift times to determine if perchance I was asleep, but my eyeball on reality was too slow. Before I could reach 15, she was laughing the guffaw of the very mad. Shiny eyed, she joined the dog on the floor, rolling her eyes heaven-ward. Patted the dog. Wiped the floor. Smacked my feet with both hands.
At last arrives my silvery peace, that elusive twinkle I barely remember. This, told to me by my spinning brain and quiet calendar, is the first moment of real, genuine, and deep peace I have had for over 10 weeks, as we have begun our journey of caring for my mother in her affliction with Alzheimer’s. These are the flowers which adorned her father’s grave just last week, only a few short days ago.
I say, when peace taps lightly upon this door, yes, I say yes, Friend, please come inside. Make yourself at home (every day for the rest of our lives. )
When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last week, I learned to lean in, turn toward her thoughts, and be like water. This I learned from the wind of a dusky summer night as I sped down the long Utah highway to be by her side. Fighting the wind is the surest path to tears.
A stunning storm driving from Idaho to Utah today. The deep grey, the cheery green, the low, low clouds and for the first time in my life, I saw the actual end of the rainbow, where it touched the ground – on both sides of me. This touched my soul, as I am en route to see my mother, who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Stormy spring encouragement. #Storm #Utah #Spring #travelphotography
My dear friend told me an astonishing thing: he is passionate about nothing. He enjoys life, is happy and busy, but passion? No, he said. Then he told me a second surprising thing:
“I need to find out why.”
To me, this sounded as if he is feeling there is something wrong with him, as he is not internally experiencing what is externally called “passion.” Living a life with passion in the U.S. is de rigueur. Anyone living without a passion needs to find one right away. Go to classes. Talk to a therapist. Find out what is wrong with you. We undergo a tremendous amount of pressure to have, and live, in a state of passion.
But is that really healthy? Is it even a natural state? Is my friend, for instance, broken or impaired if he does not have a driving passion, or do he just lack a true understanding of his ‘natural state’? What if his natural state does not include passion at all – is that like having a misappointed soul?
What if he is happy but not wildly passionate, or driven? Is that ok? Is that enough?
And what about purpose? Is life worth living without purpose? Is a life worth living if it is a happy, content life, but with no particular purpose? In both of these cases the answer could be yes, or no. The reasons for a lack of passion or purpose could be fear or lack of resources. But even this implies lack.
My sweet dog Henry is sleeping next to me as I write. He was engineered, as a pug, for companionship. He’s lucky – there’s paperwork on his purpose, which seems to be to hang out with me all day or anyone whose lap he can conquer for napping. What if he has no purpose? Is his little pug life less worthy, less living, than the life he was given? And what of children? Are they only worthy of just being happy but only until they are, say, 16, at which point they need to start thinking about purpose and passion?
I wonder if passion and purpose were invented during the industrial revolution to get people to work more, or, during the 60’s, as a result of working too much. I might have to research this.
Is a life truly lacking if the bearer simply is?
I don’t have the answer to this for myself. How about you? What do you think? Do you have purpose and/or passion? Do they go together? How does your view of yourself turn based on these components?
If you aren’t passionate or purposeful, is that ok with you? How do you feel about yourself in this regard? Are you trying to change it?
If you are, what do you feel about that part of you? What if it went away? What if your passion evaporated tomorrow – who would you be then?
In college my painting professor took us on a long walk through the campus to look carefully at what we saw. He pointed out the within the bark of every tree is contained the color of the leaves, if you look closely. I noticed from that moment forward that nothing in nature clashes. Everything in a meadow is color coordinated.
Alexandra Horowitz, who wrote the giant #1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog, has written a book called On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. She’s also created a delightful video trailer of the book. I can’t wait to read it. Today I’ll take a photoshoot walk and look, look, look around. I love the experience of seeing deeply.