I've realized recently that the story of my life is really an amalgamation of careful planning and improvisation. Whether I got to this point today by sticking to a plan or going with the flow, who I am now has got me thinking about who I was yesterday. And so in the middle of the night, I stumble into the kitchen and knock down a photo of grandma while fumbling for the light switch. I improvise as though I'm in a strange new place. And in the darkness I reach out for gram's picture guided only by intuition. Our histories are like footprints on a map--a record of our past dotted with a plethora of what ifs. In spite of my best efforts and preparations, much of my life has been a quirksome surprise. So in light of this realization, I will try to lay out a short bio hoping to bridge the gap between planned events and what the hell just happened events.
Well, let's see. I gasped my first breath the Sunday evening of January 20, 19-something. Don't ask me my age unless you're prepared to believe a lie. I was adopted as a baby, am the middle child of 3, grew up in Texas and Indiana where I rode motorcycles through corn fields, paddled canoes over waterfalls, dreamed of being a poet--an expatriate living in a far and distant land. I went to college in Utah and Texas and have a BA in Theatre and another one in English (composition & rhetoric). I lived in New York City for a while and attended the National Shakespeare Conservatory but dropped out after spending all of my student-aid money on 2-months rent, a plate of eggs benedict and a basketball. I know, crazy, right? Why did I buy a basketball?
I worked as a technical editor for a publishing company in NYC. Recently married, we lived in a tiny "artsy" (meaning mouse and roach infested) studio in Gramercy Park. A couple of years later, our beautiful daughter was born and we moved to Texas where I went to work for its democratic governor. And suddenly I discovered that I was a closet socialist and then summarily "fired" when Bush came to town. I spent my early career looking for a career. Spent my mid-career trying to resuscitate my first career and soon thereafter settled into my current career that felt like coming to after falling down the balcony stairs. I love what I do and do it quite well. Initially, however, I wanted to write novels on a beach in Northern Africa or make cheese out of a wagon while traveling with gypsies, but I was pressed into a real job due to the above mentioned child and a delinquent student loan.
Anyway, I married a great girl before I was ready, before I purged myself of those delusions we endured in the early to mid-90's. We had a great kid amidst the fallout of denial, anger, and acceptance that these delusions endowed us with. So it was imminent that divorce would inevitably follow, that this train I was riding was approaching a dark tunnel to oblivion--a wormhole into the cold isolation of insensible space. It was at that moment I was hit with a life brick, as I call it, and knocked from the mystery train to travel a parallel path while my injuries healed themselves over time and distance, a realization that only now can I perceive more fully.
I've always believed that life is a journey as depicted by the tiny rune tattooed on my hand. Some go through life proclaiming no regrets. Whatever. In my view, life is about regret. Without it, where's the growth? How is there self-realization in a context that transcends the here and now, that leads to a greater understanding of the human condition and our place within it? Today I aim to journey on without the pathos of a martyr looking over his shoulder at an image blurred by age and remorse. I try to guide my life by that tiny voice within me struggling each day to sever myself from ego and impetuism...(not sure if that's a word, but...). I hope to obtain someday the wise dignity of an artist or a scholar; always pressing forward like everyman--going to work, paying the bills, feeding the family, reasoning his way through days that go on and on like rain dripping down a mountain.
But, gratefully, I don't spend my days gasping for breath like I did 40-something years ago. I own up to a few regrets like ordering 4 star Duck Pou at Racha down the hill, but the grass is green and the air is fresh and crisp.
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I'll discover a new fragrance coming through the window or from the pile of old books on the nightstand or from the bed sheets recently washed by a quiet stranger still adjusting to her own independence. And then I'll question my own freedom and discover that my dreams have been indentured by change and I've embraced a new choice as though it were a long aspired goal finally reached. By nightfall I will remember what I've lost and realize that my independence was at some point compromised by a lifetime of worry, doubt and ignorance. Experience is my last reward; and time will make from it another memory that I will tuck away inside me until the dream is over and I awake to another day tapping at my window.
When do you reach that point in your life when you realize there's not enough fuel to turn back? Or when you admit that you'd rather plunge into the sea than start over? And if the day comes when you finally see a light at the end of the tunnel, what do you find most compelling? The end of the darkness, or the end of the tunnel? Maybe by the end of the day I'll be able to answer this question. And so today I find myself traveling across the desert, not sure of what lies beneath it, but moving forward nonetheless. Looking ahead I see nothing out of the ordinary. But, it's got me thinking about the journey again, the journey of life I am set upon right now. Browsing this journey's broader landscape, I wonder how I will find my destination if my view of this experience remains the same, and I wonder if the destination really matters anyway. I denounce the assumption that the point of this journey is to reach some specific place where the distance between a and b can only be measured by mathematics. Right now, in the middle of the desert, I consider a different model where the goal of our journey is not reached on the homestretch to paradise, but is met every day, all the time, and with every breath we pull into us.
So I ruminate. I think of this journey as a road to somewhere unimportant where we accumulate experiences that will transform us at its end into individuals with identities that will always be. In ourselves a narrative is formed, a story written, a vessel created to hold this intangible matter we call experience. The earth is as a womb where we discover what we want to be and travel throughout its domain attempting to become it. Our identity becomes the song, and experience, its resounding voice. Humanity has created us in its own image where everything matters, where nothing is trivial, where our identities have defined us as individuals. Humanity was born to transcend normal matter and exist in a context of its own design. This was the moment of creation. We rose up one morning to discover that the mirror had been cleaned and the stranger's face was gone. And today, we are alive, and our journey has begun. And so I wander here in the sand, mile-marker something, trying to put it all together. And yet I fear my vessel may spring a leak and I will have nothing to contribute to the greater realm of humanity. But still, I hope someday to discover that my own experiences of so little matter could, in truth, be so abundant in substance.
Up ahead I see a sign-post, another mile-marker actually, suspended from a cloud as though the earth were groundless, having the depth-of-field of a photograph with a background of hazea veil of schmere and blur. With miles of sand in all directions, I think back to mile-marker 3 and am awash in nostalgia. Ah yes, the good ole days. Happily, in my naiveté, I played in the sun, read poetry, basked in a philosophy of comfort. But it didn't last long. I don't bask in philosophy anymore; nowadays I am mired in it. No longer a child, I have learned to answer for myself. I do my own laundry, pay my own bills, stand on my own two feet, but I wear no medals, hoist no trophies; and looking back I wonder how I missed that soothsayer, that shrewd sorcerer with whom I'd barter for a richer life. Where was my opportunity to trade up, to give up a finger for a little emotional security, or a few toes for a higher IQ, or a front tooth for a tolerance to loneliness or an antidote to apathy?
The landscape was different back then. Not as I perceive it now, but perfect in its foreverness. As a child, I was drawn to this perfection where it held me aloft against its bosom of light and life. And it was warm; so warm and restful. But I held on for so long I was absorbed. My body dried up, and like snow it fell, silently in pieces, and oh so beautifully I disappeared into the dunes. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, my soul was freed and the pieces of my body lay like props on a stage, furniture for some greater attraction still to come. Gone today, for the most part, is my faith. I look for spiritual answers in quantum mechanics, not in theology. I look for guidance in the story of man, not in the promises of doctrine; and I look for comfort in the deity that is nature. We fought a good fight, my ideology and I. And yet in the end, by mile-marker 6, I realized that my faith was close to death, or simply disappearing altogether. I was happy to pick it up again at mile-marker 9, but it was differentskinny, gaunt and old, finally looking like something I could trust. At first I thought it was better having no faith at all, but I reconsidered as it gave me something to talk to in my hours of abject loneliness.
So I talk to my mostly-dead faith, my ugly ideology, as I affectionately call it. It's become my own brand of self-psycho-therapy, or pseudo meditation. We don't talk about promises or commitments or higher understandings, but about simple things, funny and ironic things, human things. We laugh a lot together as though we've become each others' punch lines. I've come to think of my ugly ideology as if it were a part of me, like a mal-formed twin without arms or legs, a stump of gristle and sinew existing on some level inside of me. Part parasite, part side-kick, we've found some common ground somewhere near mile-marker n. And we're okay with that. We are today, at least.
Continuing on to the next mile marker with an ugly, broken ideology was like sparring with an eye out. I believe in some mysterious way it has heightened my other senses and lets me search other perspectives for truth and comfort and permanence. Some folks say that the truth will set you free while everyone knows that a mere belief in something, anything, is a valid path to this mind-freedom, as I call it. But can a sugar pill or a prayer or the laying-on-of-hands truly allow the blind to see or the lame to walk? Let me presuppose that an ugly ideology like mine may doom a life to a level commensurate with its grotesqueness. Or, the uglier the ideology, the more difficult the struggle. The more difficult the struggle, the more substantive the experience. The more substantive the experience, the more knowledgeable the possessor. And the more knowledge one possesses, the less likely he is to accept that a sugar pill, or pleas to a mythical consciousness, will cure the blind or make the lame rise up and walk. I wouldn't say that pretty ideology is better than ugly ideology, and that people with pretty ideology have easier lives. But there are some who insist that, in the end, God will deliver all things to those whose ideology is the prettiest of all. But what exactly is "all things"? All knowledge?! I don't believe that God gives this; life does. So thus I return to my thesis. In any event, sometimes we ugly-faithers feel like we've been left in the lurch as we're told that if we fail, it's because our ideology isn't pretty enough. So it must be true then, my faith just isn't as attractive as I think it is. Phew! That's a relief.
Looking back on it now, I realize it took a lot of life to dirty up my faith. Struggle and doubt has scarred it, maimed it, changed its focus. Its mission statement is different. It's not as arrogant as it used to be. It's more fragile. It's open for discussion. It's wishy-washy. It means well even if it's sometimes misguiding. But that's okay. I no longer trust my ideology so explicitly. Its advise is just that and not revelation.
Leaving my ugly ideology behind for a moment, let me fill you in on this journey I'm rambling about. Finally the sky clears. I come to mile-marker 10, and I'm led to speculate. It is possible that I'll be married again before the year is over. But my psyche is a battlefield. Some days are sunny and bright, but optimism is deceiving. In so many ways my story reads like a memoir of failure, and I worry that my bride may stumble into that pit inside of me and drown in a well of regret. I try not to wonder how long it will be until she's caught in the crossfire or steps on a landmine. So with this in mind, I've created a new grammar where love is not only an emotion that comes and goes with the wind but a decision, a choice not so easily dismissed the next day or the morning after. But if it were just an emotion, I still couldn't tell for sure if my betrothed truly loves me. At least she does through these rose-colored glasses I got at the dollar store. But does it really matter as long as I believe she loves me? Am I her "soul-mate"? Again, I couldn't say. I think the princess and the frog were soul-mates. After the kiss, or before the kiss? Honestly, I don't think it really matters? Anyway, soul-mates are divorced all the time so I question why should I want one.
And so my thoughts turn to Amber (Zhi-zhi). She is the quintessential beauty. She interests me. She captivates me, and I suspect I'll be in her grasp until she decides to release me. She possesses a steadfastness and strength that comforts me, and a feminine domesticity presides over all she does. Everything she touches becomes new and glamorous and invaluable. A cup in her hand is not merely a cup, though nondescript and common, it becomes something greater than its history. Everything is noble around her, every object becomes a relic of the divine, and every person she approaches becomes ablaze with beauty. She is multi-dimensional, and her therapy is profound. And I like her Chinese-i-ness, like the way she eats a croissant with chopsticks, and the way she arranges our footwear in the doorway, like offerings on an alter, where I kowtow before swapping out shoes for slippers. I love her goofy-nastiness too; cute like a 9 year old but with the stage presence of a hooker. She portrays that trashy innocence like a parody for my own amusement. And yeah, I like that. I like watching her flirt with herself while practicing her English in the mirror singing "smell, small, smile" in the most seductive way, panting into her toothbrush and winking into the mirror like a prom queen. She makes fun of my Mandarin, but we always do that together, in harmony. I've stopped referencing her accent a speech impediment, but I'm tempted to make her a t-shirt that reads, "Engrish is my second ranguage". She has a great sense of humor and we spend most of our time together at play. So, at this point in my journey, I will "settle" for friendship. I will approach the ghosts of life's bigger journey in doses. And I will never ask her to fill that dark, gaping hole in my soul, but, if she's willing, to simply decorate around it.
Remembering the person I used to be has me face the man I am today with a bias I can't fully appreciate. In the eye of this bias I fail to recognize who I have become. I am a stranger ageing on an even stranger path, stumbling in the darkness over artifacts in which I no longer see their relevance. The boy I was is clearer to me now than ever before, and his journey, though easy and serene, was a walk through deception. The duality of man was obscured by a turn he didn't take, a sign he couldn't read. And so his path has lead to me. Am I that figure he imagined he'd become? He was a sweet boy, a meek boy, and his innocence and gentle demeanor has sought me out for a purpose lost in time. I miss him but am uninclined to travel his journey backward as it is not the journey, but the carefree, wondrous traveler that I miss instead.
An air of melancholy follows me around, ghosts and monsters are more prolific today than ever. But was it not I who created them and gave them sanctuary in my mind? My fear is their power over me. They haunt me, weigh me down, and now I am bullied by my own imagination. I travel today mile by mile, stepping quietly as not to wake another phantom lurking in my head. Long and dark shadows reach out before me, but from which aspect of my mind they come, I cannot tell. But the boy of my past is untroubled. I can see him riding his bike to the library or swimming laps at the pool or walking his fingers across the piano. His youthful, unspoiled spirit seems so unfamiliar to me as the distance between us grows deeper and darker every year. If life could be as it was back then, would I become him again? Would he come up from the deep to repossess me? I surrender to him. I capitulate like the falling notes of a song, a hymn of peaceful surrender. The sun would be warm, the air fragrant with memories resurfaced from a past too distant to discern. There were no frightening apparitions on his journey. Just hope and joy. Such a pretty ideology he had unchallenged. Now he is asleep like a baby, sunken in a downy plushness that keeps him safe from the outside realities I see on my journey every day. Would he know me? Would he forgive my idiocities? Would he know that I am he? Oh to walk in the path of my past, that I could meet the boy I used to be and collect with him the treasures I lost in his future.
The mile markers in recent history are rubbed out, sand blasted away from hours and hours of boredom I suspect. My vessel feels empty, still. It's as light as a sigh. And I swear if I held it up to my ear, I'd hear it snoring. I try to remember the details of an eventful moment in my past but they are muted, specifics lost in the grayness of history. Sigh, mile-marker 12 and I can tell I've been on this road a while. My bag of collectibles is light; souvenirs of the journey are scant. This is unexpected. I thought the older I got, the more I would know, the more secure I would become in this developed reality. I thought I'd be full of wisdom and insights. I wanted to be that wise old sage, sitting on a hill, smoking his pipe, answering questions with questions, challenging passersby with riddles of wisdom. But the stuff I've learned isn't in my vessel after all. A mosaic of thoughts plays out in my mind like a moviea brave little canary singing in his cage, wondering if his life has meaning, if his individuality will be lost once he is gone, lost in life's bigger picture. It's obscene how I obsess about that "bigger picture", the theme of a movie I can barely understand but believe in with all of my heart. And then I remember. Who believes in anything with all of their heart? Please, don't be silly.
I consider a big picture where each of us is a puzzle piece. There is no box to peek at, no clues or revelations as to what this picture should look like. It simply looks like us. No one knows absolutely what the final outcome of our story will be, but once we are done and the earth is swallowed up by a black whole or obliterated by our sun, or even long before that when our poisoning of the earth is complete, all of these pieces (us) will assemble to reveal (be) the ultimate picture (story) of humanity. Relegate the names of this king or that prophet, for every piece has equally valid information. Every experience matters, every soul matters. We are creating a picture of the human experience, and by extension, we are creating god him/her/it-self. God is in utero as are we. In our desires for love, peace, and happiness, we are creating this god in our own image. And at the end of our story, god will be born. The story of man will look like us with no cosmetics, no reconstructions, no captions or explanations. And if a picture speaks a thousand words and we are each a single word, imagine the story we can write together. Imagine what would be if all these words came together, all of our stories were merged into one account of the human condition. Will all of our questions then be answered? What significance, I wonder, will my own story have?
Were we created by nature only to be forgotten once our piece was written? This is where honest faith lies. And combined with the words of our neighbors' voice, our story has context, our faith has resolution, and our god becomes all knowing, all powerful, all things to all people, unifying and just. And my own faith, my ugly ideology, my wishy-washy, indecisive, somewhat inebriated ideology will be but a small utterance in the broader story of man. But I hope, no matter what, I can always have that to talk to.
There's no telling how many mile-markers are left before I have to land this puppy. The auto-pilot went out eons ago along with steering and communications. I suppose this just makes the journey a little more exciting, more memorable. But it brought on some complications I didn't foresee. Anxiety, often debilitating, has been chronic, showing up at the worst possible times, harassing me with symptoms unrelated to anything rational and specific. My logical self knows that I see things that aren't really there and fail to see the peace and comfort right in front of me. But my illogical self is the one behind the wheel. I search the depths of my being for a calming thought until the moment passes. But, truthfully, I'm not sure I want to know myself that well. I suspect, at the end, my consciousness will evaporate into the ethers when my body exhales its last breath, and return to that other dimension. This is what I'll think of when I approach that last mile-marker. There I'll be, skidding across the tarmac through the curtain of death, like entering a wormhole to my sub-atomic home to reunite with the boy of my past. All my anxiety will fade away, nothing but love and peace will await me. Right? Right, I wonder.
I have always longed to tell the stories of people I photograph. And I have always fostered a style and philosophy that endeavors to illuminate the soul of everything I see. I look for a person's humanity in their expressions complete with the good, bad, but never ugly ;). And in the end, I often discover a true and soulful beauty that reveals a story about everyday people that, hopefully, we can all relate to. I love people, and helping them find this beauty behind the camera is my number one goal. Nothing illustrates the collaboration of art and science better than the art and science of photography. It employs the art of observation and the science of communication. One must see the sublime in the mundane and the extraordinary in the midst of ordinary. And one must communicate through pictures a context of time that can be preserved and remembered forever.
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