The story went like this: It's about us. It's about a small circus traveling around the country gathering memories. It's called The Mudshow Diaries. It's about making sure my kids stay away from the elephants, trying to find a laundromat in a strange town, documenting a world built around blood ties, and sweat: A diary kept over ten years of traveling with a circus in America became a journey in motherhood and photography, along with an odyssey into the country's forgotten paths and the circus' hidden world. Along the way it also became a journey in belonging - in discovering my family in a fleeting cast, reluctantly, and of finding acceptance, slowly, in this close-knit family that is the circus - love unfurled by tenuous chance, as on a tightrope. But that was before. Now I'm a single mother before I am a photographer, and the circus is far away. This is a weekly blog about my journey as a single mother and as a photographer, forging ahead with joy and tears, and absolutely no regrets, to redefine my life. It's about paying the bills, drying up tears and scrapes, going to ball practice, and sometimes, all the time, or is it ever anymore - the longing to be in Europe to document the refugee crisis, or simply to photograph the faces of recent immigrants here in Columbia, Missouri, where I live - it's about taking pictures of it all because photography is what I do, it is how I breathe, my way through the world. But now it's Saturday and Saturdays are laundry days. I'll take a picture of that.
Family. August 29, 2015, Columbia, (Missouri.) I never thought I’d have a broken family. I never imagined I’d have a family at all. A photographer I only dreamed of being, and by that I mean someone who makes a living taking pictures and is recognized for it. And that, incredibly, I was, I was a news photographer in a small, vibrant daily, The Journal-Courier, in Jacksonville, Illinois (it has since done away with photographers altogether,) and in a big metro paper, The Press-Enterprise, in Riverside, California (which had seventeen staffers when I worked there and now has four,) I entered the National Photographers Association’s contest and sometimes I won, I went to faraway places on assignment,sometimes, and I went down the street a lot, where there were many destinies and many faces, each telling, and I loved it. Now I’m picking up the pieces of a broken family and a stuttering career. Some days it’s easy, like yesterday, when I was honored to be featured on the World Photography Organisation’s blog, allowing wide exposure to my work and a sense of achievement. Most days it’s hard, as the phone doesn’t ring and the work sits unpublished and I feel myself slipping in a dark hole of buried hopes, my friends far away on the road or around the world, the fruits of a life of wandering. When I get down I like to look at the pictures I took of some of my friends, pictures from the circus, from my project, The Mudshow Diaries. Rebecca is one of my those friends and taking her picture used to be one of my favorite things to do. It was the last year I traveled with the circus. I took portraits of its families. There were various working on the show that year, as always, our circus a small traveling village with its school, its cafeteria, its rivalries, its hierarchies, its petty rancors and its gorgeous darings. The Mosses, the Browns, the Perez, the Fuscos, the Loyals, mine, and Rebecca’s. Rebecca is an aerialist, a wife and a mother, the quintessential performer. One day in the fall of 2012 she asked me to take a picture of her family in wardrobe, a souvenir. It had to be quick; circus performers dash from one act to another during shows, and to get every member of one family to sit down for a photograph at the same in wardrobe and makeup is almost impossible. Their home was a mess - circus performers’ homes are a mess because there is no space and that space is both home and backstage, full of open makeup cases among the remnants of lunch, piles of dusty shoes and the dog’s hair. This is the picture that I took, that day near Chicago during intermission and before dinner.
On sadness. September 4, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) How do you photograph sadness? It’s been a week full of doubts, like an army of pins and needles invading my thoughts, a week of difficult parenting, a week of not taking any pictures, of feeling more alone than usual. The sadness comes and goes, amid the joys and the chores, and I don’t know how to photograph it. How does a photograph convey one's feeling? Back when I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism’s PhotoJ sequence, photographs were a tool of journalism and photojournalism was to be objective above all else. “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” - but a photograph of a pipe is a pipe and that is that. This is not a pipe. This is not sadness, it is a photograph of my son as he wakes up, slowly, in a darkened room. This is not sadness, because sadness is not in the photograph but in the photographer’s heart - and maybe the viewer’s eye. The dogma of the PhotoJ school’s founding fathers, the cardinal rules of objectivity, observation and storytelling, the fly on the wall approach to being a photographer, the unbiased, impartial and obsessively objective witness to life’s travails, big and small, was what we strove for all those twenty-or-so years ago, our gold standard, and yet even then it was debated and deconstructed and I belonged to those who thought it was all a lot more complicated than that, Roland Barthes and all, and that objectivity could hide emotion and opinion and intimate vision, and that it always did, in fact. The photographs of The Hunt, the 2015 Visura grant’s winning story, make up a reportage on hunting in an unforgiving environment, yes, but they are also, they are most of all an intimate and subjective portrait of unbearable beauty and poetry. As I strive to redefine my life as a single mother and photographer amid sadness and mundane challenges, I am reminded that photography is how I go through the world but that is could also be my salvation, the way out of sadness and into the light.
Hope. September 12, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) The opposite of sadness is not hope, but hope is what this picture I took this summer makes me feel, and it is the picture that came to my mind when I sat down to write. I don’t know why, other than another picture taken of a beach on the other side of the Mediterranean sea in a dramatically different situation was another reason to feel hope this week. North and South, safety on one side and the chaos brought about by conflicts on the other, families, friends, my boys enjoying a swim in the sea on a summer evening and migrants fleeing for their lives dying in that sea thousands of miles and a world away. Pictures can be terribly good at pulling at our emotions, or playing on them. They can also be terribly good at stirring us into positive action through those emotions, as was demonstrated last week with the picture of the little Syrian boy washed out dead on a Turkish beach. So this is the good news: that pictures still have incredible power, as acknowledged by no less than Nicolas Kristoff of The New York Times in a tweet on September 4th: “The impact of the photo of the drowned Syrian child underscores that photojournalism isn't secondary to journalism but at its very core.”
Le diner sur l'herbe. September 19, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) The week was uneventful, full of chores and kids stuff, work, depressing thoughts, some good news on the photography front as I started working on marketing my business again, simple steps that gave me a small morale boost and that is enough, small stuff, kids stuff, a movie in the park behind our school. The movie was a poor excuse for entertainment, a run of the mill animation with no creativity; the art was in the field below. The scene reminded me of a Renoir painting, something in the quality of the light, the people, families laying out on blankets, just being together, the stuff of life then and now, the kids chasing each other, sunset behind the trees, a baby crying, joy. I took a picture with my phone. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Renoir, is what came to my mind. Also another crowd scene, that one this summer at the Pont du Gard site in the South of France. The family of man, leisure version.
Louie. September 25, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.)
This post has nothing to do with photography, other than a failure at it, and the redeeming power of animals’ grace. I found Louie today. Louie is a husky I adopted from the Humane Society in the spring of 2014 and then reluctantly relinquished because he ran after our cats and I was afraid he was going to kill them, being a husky. I’ve often thought that my life started going downhill when I gave him up. The cats were killed on the street in front of our house in short order after that, my photography business felt like it was taking off but then slowed and puttered, raising the kids became excruciatingly hard, and then at the end of the year my husband left and it all came together in a mass of pain. Louie’s eyes were piercing blue, to the point of unbearable. He was exceedingly beautiful yet I could never make a good picture of him. I didn’t keep him long enough to develop a bond with him, just long enough to fall in love with him. Not long enough for a good picture. Two days after relinquishing him I called to see if maybe I could get him back but he was gone already, adopted on the very first day, a prize pure bred in a house of mutts.And then there he was as the kids and I walked on campus. I wouldn’t have stopped had Dylan not asked if he could pet the dog, a usual request. There he was, Louie with the piercing blue eyes, on the very same street where I used to walk him after dropping off the kids to their music lessons during the short time he graced our lives. It made me ridiculously happy, to see him again, to see that he was well taken care of, just to see that he was.Maybe now I can take a good picture of him, like that of Chang but with the piercing blue eyes, and my joy in them. Animals have that power over us, the power of grace, the power to remind us of that well of innocence creativity and wonder we all had as children, a drop of light we've long buried inside of us, smothered with our heart breaks, reality, the dirt we take on with the years, the beatings, that drop I'm after in each photograph, my holy grail, I found in Louie's piercing blue eyes.
I am dancing. October 3, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) Putting your eye on the viewfinder and composing the frame, looking at your reality through the camera, focusing on what calls you, moving with the flow, finding the faces, thinking not thinking about what it means, clicking the shutter release button, hearing the click sound and being in the next image before you take a new breath. I took some pictures this week. I took some pictures with a camera, not my iPhone. I took some pictures and I got paid for them. I took my kids along with me because it was a rehearsal for a dance production and it was at night and there is nobody I trust to care for them and they loved to watch as the stage was being set up, the lights, the props, just like the circus they grew up in, and when the music came on Nicolas thought it was scary, and Dylan kept asking questions about how things worked, about the meaning of the dances, while I kept shooting, and it was near midnight when we went to sleep last night. There. Profession: photographer, single mother. I love it. This has been a good week.
No words. October 10, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) How do you bury love? Show the shadow of its disappearance in a photograph? This had been another good week. Now I am finally forced to look straight on and with no illusions into the absence of love, of the many infinitely small and essential ties, a look, a smile, a touch, the many and infinitely mundane essential and unsaid words that make up a bond, that make up a relationship, and a family. There can be no tears, the kids are here to be taken care of; there has to be plenty of photographs to be taken, to rekindle the heart to life. There are no more words for now.
Time. October 17, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) My little one was sick this week. Here he is, flying high at the circus, with his Dad and big brother, laughing, barely two years old, and that is one of my favorite pictures of him, even though you can hardly see him you feel him laughing flying, time suspended in joy. This week he came ill, my little one because he will always be my little one, the youngest, a fever, gone as it came, unfathomable, random, as illnesses will be, and the anguish of being helpless, mostly, in the face of it. This wasn’t anything serious, just the stuff of daily life raising children. This wasn’t anything to write about. Nothing much and I think of all of us in our vulnerability, of all the ones who are sick, dying, young and old, the unfairness and the agony, our cries. I think of the swan in Baudelaire’s poem of the same name I read again last week with a friend, the great white swan lost on dusty cobblestones looking in vain for water, crying to the sky, imploring God, “that great swan in its torment,” like “those who lose what never can be found again - never.” And there it is: photography my shield against the passing of time, of everything I love, against death. My fragile wall against the abyss, my daily struggle to hold on to what can never be found again. I take pictures to hold on to what I love but is already gone, to keep what is lovely and fair and can never be found again, to keep the trace of it, only a moment. As far as I can remember I have had the feeling that time was running out, running running, our lives always against the clock and it is too late, and there I found in photography the only way I could deal with it, and with the oblivion that will come. Nicolas felt better and went back to school, and I went back to my part-time job at a language immersion school, and the rest of our lives resumed. In those two days I stayed home with him I had time to finish post-production work on a client’s pictures. Time.
Illusions. October 24, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) Today I am taking pictures of a friend’s family. It is one of the hardest things to do for me, to take pictures of a child, someone, anyone who is life itself for someone else and translate that love in an image. Sometimes those images are going to be all we have left of a loved one. It is a false pretense, that defiance of death through photography. What hubris! My brother looking at the camera with a thin air of defiance on his lips, and the cigarette between his fingers, and he’s been dead more than twenty years and the image is all I have and nothing like what he was. An image will never be more than a shadow, pure creation. After taking family pictures, or pictures of children, I always feel that I failed, failed dismally, in that creative endeavor. The problem is there is always something else I could have done, something different; as in any art form the variations are maddeningly infinite by nature. Infinite too, the mistakes you feel you make when raising a child by yourself, infinite the headaches and the worrying. My youngest a tangle of nerves and pent-up emotions these days, draining me in the wake of his exuberant rebellions, sweet as can be and determined but fragile, like thin crystal, and that thin membrane I see like a reflection of myself in him and I want to spare him the mistakes, emotions rolling in and out like destructive waves, it’s ok, my love my life, and later it will all be forgotten like finger drawings in the sand. Images like drawings in the sand. That picture of you an illusion we have become so eager to think as reality.
Much ado and no photography. October 30, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) Big eyes. Brown. My child’s eyes. Yes this child I wanted and he is here, and he is all. The days are his and all I can do is stare back in awe, and silly happiness, and go on with the days’ labors. A week of big eyes staring at me in love and anger and frustration and glee, Nicolas in the dentist’s chair with sunglasses on the size of his whole face, saying I’m flying! as the chair goes up and up, and I just joy. Dylan smoothing the lines on my forehead tonight as I kissed him good night and saying, Mom, I can tell you laughed a lot in your life. Yes and it’s all thanks to you my love. Big brown eyes my brown-eyed boys, honey-dew skin that turns deep dark chestnut in the long summer days, skinny legs and long long fingers, the first thing I noticed when Nicolas was born were his fingers, how incredibly long, and Dylan will be ten years old in two weeks and I remember the impression of his feet the midwives that helped him into the world made and I want to make new ones, out of glee and joy and silly happiness. So there were the joys and there was gymnastics, and it was my turn to carpool but the car keeps draining coolant and heating up exactly on Thursdays, the days we alternate carpooling, and there was swimming and I couldn’t join the boys in the water as I’ve started to do this fall to build up my dismal endurance, a lifetime of no exercise catching up with me, a lifetime and ten years of child rearing almost solo and no time to shower much less go to the gym all catching up with me, and there was a slew of doctor’s appointments, mine and the kids’, and cold weather finally settling down on us and there are the winter clothes to dig up and the summer’s memories to tuck away, and the week is over and I haven’t as much as taken one picture, not even with my phone, of the big brown eyes looking back at me and oh, how I’m flying high.
Roaring at life, we are. November 8, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) I feel like roaring. One of those days. One of these weeks. As my friend and newspaper photographer extraordinaire Denny Simmons said, I “got some love” this week and it felt so good. Excerpts from my very personal and now painfully personal project, The Mudshow Diaries, were featured in a major publication and the thanks I need to extend are endless, even as the bitter-sweet reality of this part of my life being closed are still slowly sipping through my psyche trailing their infinite thread of loss pearls. But there I go again, waxing sad and melancholy when what this week brought me was sheer raucous joy and not just from my peers and the photo industry but from my two little grains of life, new haircuts and same old ways, just as hard and just as great it is raising them, roaring with laughter and dancing loudly one day and grinding teeth the next, and professional success or not this won’t change a bit, my friends. But today I do feel like roaring still and it does feel good, simply.
My country bleeds. November 15, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) My country bleeds, and in the small closed kingdom of my heart I bleed, and all I can write about today is a world of hurt. My country bleeds, my family is well but all know of someone who is not, who was there, the daughter of a friend of my mother’s, in the restaurant where one of the attacks happened, she is safe but the friend next to her is dead. My country bleeds and we all bleed, the daughter of another friend in the Bataclan that night, and I bleed and I want to cry Why? but I know why, and there is hard part, scores of disenfranchised second-generation immigrant youth left in the ditch of French society for decades and ready for the brainwashing of groups like the Islamic State, an immense collective mess-up turned international tragedy, and I try but can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, nor at the end of my own inconsequential intimate world of pain. My country bleeds. I bleed. It is a reflection of the beauty of my life so far that I have no pictures to express that. I think of James Nachtwey’s picture of a child crying in a Romanian orphanage, the one that reminds me of the famous painting called The Cry by Edvard Munch.
Images. November 29, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) Through our shooting star and into the light we fly, grateful for all the joy in our lives. It’s been a trying two weeks. Walking through hell and back on the wings of a few words, yes but pausing to give thanks, too, and that act of will redeeming. And there was my birthday, and the pearl of messages from friends around the country and around the world on social media was a sweet reminder of my wandering life. It was a reminder of the power of the word, the words again. Against the flow of images from all these years that have become unbearable to see for they remind me a little too much of death. Against the flow my friends’ thoughts dissolving the images away, images that I made and that made me, all those images now no more than a fool’s folly, not my truth, not anybody’s truth, just images willed out of what is now my history. It has been a strange two weeks. Dylan turned ten. I remember turning ten, one of very few childhood memories, and the cake on the table in the large living room of that sixties-styled house in the South of France my father designed, the large living room my father wanted painted bright orange-red, the fireplace in the far corner, all concrete and consuming wood, the table with the cake my mother made and my family there and Paul and Hélène, my parents’ artist friends who lived down the street and my grandparents growing up because my real grandparents were either dead (on my mother’s side) or inexistent in our family’s life, a cake and a present and two close friends, and it is all I needed. I remember thinking getting two digits for sure meant the world belonged to me, I had finally attained the right to step onto the springboard to real life. Remembering is all I seem to do these days, my circus life long gone but my present full of its trails, bits of nails left on the floor, the dust there. It has been a long two weeks, a presence an absence an unflinching reality, and my history in pictures dancing in front of my eyes in his eyes. It has been a strange two weeks, and I am exhausted but at peace in my world of mirrors.
Gratitude. December 13, 2015, Columbia (Missouri.) It is raining and warm outside, and the house is full of colors, the walls red, turquoise blue, bright yellow, the boys’ eyes. The past week has brought me recognition beyond my expectations and again the love of friends and family during in from all over the world, keeping all those colors screaming. Daily living is still a stressful race against the clock with two kids’ lives I strive to keep as alive and joyful and full of soul-opening opportunities as I can, and three jobs I try to juggle, but I am finally making friends, thanks to a part-time job started this summer at a French-Spanish immersion school, French friends, Puerto Rican friends, American friends, the way I like it, my rainbow of life, the screaming colors, wide open and crazy my life and our friends and the door to my house. Even when it is cold outside I can’t bear to close the front door, leave it open I say, I need the light, the door to the motorhome when we were a circus family wide open and my spouse complaining about the cold or the wind or the heat but I would reopen it the instant he was gone, and at the house here it is open wide, because I want to see outside and bring in the light, because I want to see outside and bring in the world. But I’m lost in my words again and all I wanted to say was that in the maelstrom of our lives I am so happy, and I got to shoot a senior portrait yesterday, too, and giving tribute to that almost grown man’s face was a fitting culmination of my week’s gratitude.
Into the light. December 30, 2015, Caddo Mills (Texas.) Mostly I worry about money, like an undercurrent I can’t fight. Yet the deep river of my worries is tinged with light. Isn’t it the light you see first, out of the shadows in the image drawing your gaze, making you want to smile? I had to add up the sum of what I earned this year to reapply for health insurance, and it was a sobering and depressing endeavor, topped only by looking at the list of my photography clients. Building a business takes time, my friends tell me, especially a photo business. Ideally it is done with the backing of a spouse who provides the earnings and the support, moral as well as material, while the investments, the bills and the worries pile up. Here I am, and there may not be a worse way to start a business than the one I went about this year, emotionally bankrupt, financially strained, physically drained. Not surprisingly it’s not working, at least not yet, by far. So I worry about money. I worry about ever earning enough again to be independent, to raise my kids solo and not have to ask anybody anything, to walk proud, to walk light and beautiful. Then come the holidays and the holidays are hard, there is nothing worse than the holidays, and trying to make good memories for the kids, to be a presence of joy and lightheartedness, and his presence/absence in our lives so difficult to bear, and that it’s all ending soon and it’s a relief and it’s so scary. But I will be strong and I will be joy and each with one of my breath I will bring my kids lightness and beauty and laughter no matter what scorching winds the fear rides, and I will defeat it with each act of creation and each act of love and they are the same and it is on the wings of their winds that the world is born into its perfection every moment everywhere.
Endless laughter. January 9, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) I survived the holidays and all the new year’s wishes of joy and love, especially love. I’m ready to move on, I’ve packed away the nostalgia, accepted the fact that nothing supported it but emptiness and longing. The road opened up again, I’ll see where it goes, it is mine alone. The holidays, Texas and my sister-in-law, my only sister, and an emotional landscape I know too well, a landscape where I get lost and can’t find myself, but also a landscape of family, or the closest to family I can claim on this side of the Atlantic, and which is about to become a loaded field of memories and discarded opportunities, and in the end just nothing. My sister-in-law lives in a small town east of Dallas and has built a life there, started a family, a business. I could fit in and would probably be able to grow my photo business a lot faster thanks to her connections to the Latino community and beyond. I never will because the last thing I want now is to get closer to what used to be. The road here ended. I’ll stay away and I’ll dream of much farther away, there is always New York and going back in time there, I was young in New York in the eighties, the grit and the possibilities, but I’ll stay in the Midwest and I’ll keep on taking life a step at a time, I’ll move to St Louis come spring so the kids can enroll in a public French immersion school there and I’ll hope for the best, I’ll laugh my head off, I’ll call my friends, I’ll try to earn some money doing what I love, taking pictures, speaking in images, and maybe St Louis will see the business finally take off, and that would be my oh I wish for this year, after healthy happy kids, gratitude in every breath and endless laughter.
All that matters. January 16, 2016, Columbia, (Missouri.) A week of working on a photography project is a good week. The sheer enchantment of it, for it has been so long, and it is rejuvenating to be simply working, but also to be working on something that is relevant to the day’s discourse and important to tell, something you feel strongly about. It is what we’re here for, after all, all of us, photographers, mothers, writers, laborers, artists, brothers, teachers, activists, all of us toiling at the day’s work, all of us and it is all that matters, in our last hour, the helping, inspiring, making this shared world a little kinder, a little fairer, or just a little more beautiful. A week of the usual daily chores, a good week at school for the boys, praise and pride, an uneventful week at work, but for seeing small kids’ minds struggling and growing, fascinating, and the work from my heart and soul, not much to report but a sense of accomplishment I am ever grateful to have thanks to the art of photography. That is all for this week, and it is a lot.
Breeze. February 7, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) We camped out in the total rehab of a house on an air mattress that made my back screech, amidst the rubble and the dirt, with the tall windows open because it smelled of paint, and there was happiness. The weather warm enough for spring, I opened the windows to let the breeze in, late January and it’s like sneaking out of winter for a night, and breathed in happiness, all together again, so uncomfortable and so perfectly joyful, silly, and in the morning, when I was scrubbing on, there was a work of art: right there the windows in the kids room, neatly covered in newspaper because of painting the walls, and the light through the print, an ephemeral work of art, beauty. What makes a life worth living? Streams of simple happiness in the unexpected, raising two boys to be giving and caring, and love, or maybe just the light through the window, and the caress of an impossible January breeze.
Silent partner. February 14, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) Nicolas has been struggling with attention at school all this week, and with frustration at home, the old sibling rivalries, frustration and anger turned into screeching fury, triggered by nothing. For me this means a lot of thinking and agonizing about how to teach my kids the emotional and social skills they need to develop into emotionally and socially stable, fulfilled and happy adults, it means a lot of thinking back into my own childhood and how my own insecurities developed, and stayed, and whether I can successfully teach those so important skills to my kids when I’m so unsure about mastering them myself. It means a lot of time spent parenting, and less for photography. Being a single mother means the responsibility for all this, and everything else, rests on me, and just me. Sometimes the pressure feels just overwhelming. But there is the grace, the daily drop of happiness, and gratitude, the grace and the rain and looking up at the grey skies, amid the fury. Grace: my children. They were planned; they have been my priority since I brought them into this world; they come first. This means sometimes, most of the time, my days are filled with them, and work, and photography goes under the surface, although it is always there, like a friend walking by my side, my silent partner.
A piece of myself is gone. February 28, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) A woman I loved died this morning in my hometown, in the South of France. Fanette was one of my closest friends' mother. We grew up together, Zaza, her sister and I, our parents close friends, our childhoods a common territory, Fanette a constant presence. The afternoons spent in the cavernous stone house deep in our old medieval village, two little girls playing in the stone shed full of magic off the patio, later watching dubbed American TV series in the cluttered room under the roof where Fanette sometimes accompanied us, later still, adolescents, listening to punk rock on the radio in Zaza’s room, her sister Sophie not quite as close but still. Fanette, towering in the art supplies store she owned a few blocks from their home, the smell of paint and pastels, her tall, bony, straight figure commanding and slightly frightening. It is as if I had grown up in that family as much as in my own’s, Fanette’s taste for traditional French cooking the kind my mother never cooked, her brisk manner, the reassurance of her total authority, Fanette and Jacques, always uttered in that order by my mother and father, their friends Fanette et Jacques, these words mapping my childhood as much as the rooms of my home and roads of my village, the old dark stone village house full of paintings, sculptures and artifacts that secretly scared me, the family were avid collectors and art lovers, the cavernous house and its smells, the smell of polished wood, of stone, of the magical territory of my child mind, that house the realm of my childhood, Fanette, its implacable captain. She died this morning, at home, surrounded by her family, peacefully my mother told me. My friend lost her mother, and I a piece of myself too.
Does it matter? March 21, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) Last week I had a routine outpatient procedure at the hospital and it made me think of death. Of course. What if I didn’t wake up? Things happen after all. And things did not happen, of course, and I woke up fine and was up and going and wondering what to do with the rest of the day, which I had set aside in case, well, something happened, or I felt the way I was told I would feel, woozy, tired, which I didn’t, and I couldn’t even make myself feel productive and clean the car because I had done that the day before, waiting for the effects of the medicine to take hold, nor could I reschedule my tutoring appointments, too late, so I just paid bills and straightened paperwork and cooked, because another effect of the procedure is that I had not eaten since two days before. Death was out, spaghetti was in. And so that’s my life. Frantic and somewhat predictable: and not even a photograph, in those last two weeks, although I have been, as I always am, looking at a lot of photographs, and constantly thinking about them, and why we are taking them and what they mean and what it means and if it matters in the end. Are all photographs good, no matter, all the million pictures people take, with their cell phones, the million selfies, are they good pictures just because they exist, as someone on social media old me, rebelling against applying any “hierarchy” on art? Does it matter? Why?
New York! April 3, 2016, Elmwood Park (New Jersey.) Spring Break and I took the kids to New York. The excuse was to take Dylan to the Metropolitan Opera after he surprised my by loving every minute of the performance at the Missouri Theater last month, but who needs an excuse to see this city? Central Park in early bloom and almost winter light, the magic, the hustle of tourist heaven Times Square where my friend and host Kristine works, the Met, the views from the Empire State Building, the Staten Island ferry ride, the musicians on the subway platforms, the illegal performers in the subway cars, pretzels with mustard and too much salt on the way to the Met, the armors!, sitting all the way to the top in the Metropolitan Opera, smelling the smells of New York and going back in time, watching the boys in all their wonder, and their kindness (walking by a guy asking for “money for food,” they said we should help him so we turned around and stood in line and in the rush to get him a sandwich and a hot drink. Life is beautiful hardly sums it up. I try to grab a memory or two with my phone, I want more than anything to be in this moment and be elated and grateful.
I sing America. April 18, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) On Friday April 15 husband and I became American citizens. For us it is the end of a long, long and sometimes difficult journey, the crowning of many efforts and frustrations, hopes and dreams. For me it is heavy with a significance that I am only now beginning to fully acknowledge and embrace. It begins like this. I sing America and the freedom to be myself (at the risk of using such a tired cliché.) I sing America and the open road I love so. I sing America and the struggling diversity of its people. I sing America the oversized and oversimple, the naive and the arrogant, the daring and the antiquated (ah, the mystifying opposites my father used to love about this country: the most advanced technology, capable of sending a man on the moon, going hand in hand with the likes of obsolete light switches.) I sing America and the faces of my friends, and the faces of my children. I sing America and the promise that shimmers, and even if it is mostly an empty one now it still holds such potency, the promise President Obama’s message couldn’t but outline, “the promise of the American dream.” What is it now, the American dream?
Eternity and a fire. May 17, Columbia (Missouri.) It has been a long time without writing. Single motherhood life so busy, the little ailments of our lives, the friendships and the work done. But on Sunday the kids and I cleared bushes in the backyard to start making a tree house and made a fire. Or I cleared the bramble and they bickered, and the new neighbors’ girls came over and the other neighbor girl too, and Dylan became a typical ten-year-old trying to impress the girls and Nicolas hovered around wanting to be included and sometimes succeeding. Another task, to make a bow and arrow, and they looked for suitable pieces of wood amid the downed bushes, and feathers (no feathers) and flint stones (no flint stones) and we ended up with a lot of sticks. This is what cutting electronic devices for the kids on week ends turned out to be, busy. The weather was cool and it was sunny and the yard looked beautiful with the gazebo I improvised for the wisteria and the new cherry trees among the five oak seedlings Dylan brought back from school on Arbor Day because some kids didn’t want them and he had to save them. Ibtisam arrived and we lit the fire and dragged a wooden table outside and ate around the fire while the kids soon wandered away back to the neighbor girls. Ibtisam is a writer and around the fire we talked about creativity, what it is and how one can or cannot live on it but has to because we agreed it is not a choice but a way of being in the world. We talked about writing and about photography. We talked about how the writing tends to wander away from you, how it carries you along and you end up in an entirely different place from where you started because the words have a life of their own. The act of writing a form of therapy for me, when photography is simply something I have to do because it calls me, it is there to be taken and I simply the vessel, the eye directing the arm directing the fingers directing the camera to take that picture because it is simply calling to be taken, cutting through the bramble of reality to get to the picture I know is there (sometimes not) and needs to be taken, an urge and a necessity stronger than iron, much stronger than my will, much stronger than my emotions. When I had a job as a newspaper photographer I remember being in awe of the power of photography to take me out of myself; suffering from a migraine I would go into an assignment knowing that the minute I stepped into the work and started taking pictures the physical pain would be gone, and I wouldn’t realize it until I stepped out again and it came back just as instantly as it had vanished, I like a Buddhist monk who has trained for years to control her mind and can ignore the pain by sheer will, only none of it my conscious making. Photography is so much more than my voice then. It is much more than the stubborn inner wall I am uselessly building against death and time passing, the joy of emotions translated. It is what connects me to the mystery of what I can’t name, my connection to eternity.
Like a kid (yet again.) May 30, Columbia (Missouri.) My head is exploding. Yesterday I got fitted with a new pair of hearing aids, and it feels just like when I first got hearing aids twenty years ago: a world of sounds is assaulting me with its vigor, a lost world revealed. What a world! Simple things, just water flowing, keys jangling, a plastic bag being ruffled, sounds are exploding in my ears, crisp, sharp as nails, and this morning I walk through the house in amazement over the incredible power of the hardwood floors squeaking or the birds chirping outside my windows. The joy! I am like a newborn discovering the world, in awe and wonder, thanks to failing ten-year-old hearing aids I finally decided to replace. We threw a sleepover party last night to celebrate the end of the school year, eight boys telling jokes over pizza and then wandering through the house wielding light sabers while eating cup cakes, and four of them are still sleeping in my boys’ bedroom and there I am, of all days, making all that noise today, all that noise but wait, it’s always been there, hidden in the depths of my damaged ears and aging hearing aids, and this explosion of sound sensations is only my renaissance (yet again.) Just a few days ago I was reading about the world of touch in The New Yorker and I was blown away by the breadth of this world I had never envisioned quite in this way (the power of great reporting and writing,) and reflecting on what our senses mean for each of us individually. What has losing my ability to hear meant for me over all these years, other than the denial then the reckoning, the world of sound so fresh and new twenty years ago as I first got fitted and again today? What has it meant other than the wonder of that, this feeling of sounds revealed so strong so full so powerful, such a gift? I realize that my disability is a gift on days like today, but that it may also be one of the key factors in my ability to photograph in the way that I do, the way some blind people can develop a heightened sound perception. Key to my way through the world, it defines me in many more ways than a limit and a label. I may never know, but I am intrigued. That, and jubilant like a kid.
Dreams of ice cubes. June 6, Columbia (Missouri.) It’s turned warm. I feel like sitting down on the porch with a cold glass of sparkling water and jingle the ice cubes in it until they melt. I also have to make dinner. That, and a million other things, or so it seems, and I’m running late. It’s almost five o’clock on a warm Monday evening, I just picked up the kids from school on their first day of summer school and we took Annie to the vet, and I haven’t even thought about thinking what’s for dinner, and there are more errands to run, I need to go by the bank, the plants need watering, the dog needs walking and later on there is the gym class for Nicolas to drive to on the other side of town, and there is not going to be any ice cubes tingling on the porch., but a mad race to mark the next chore off on my perpetual to-do list. I’m always running, it’s a condition in my life, like dandruff, or fair skin. I’m a single mother, I’m perpetually running to try and not be late. But in all honesty I’ve had that feeling of having to catch up, of being late, of having to run in place in order not to fall behind, as far as I can remember. Being a mother has only made it real. Last Friday at about the same time as it is now I made a wildly optimistic prediction, talking to a friend on the phone, that upon hanging up I was going to mow the yard front and back then reorganize the cabinet in the kitchen and then go to work on my photography business’ marketing plan. Now that the kids have grown they need to be able to reach and get cups and plates out by themselves and right now they have to climb up on the counters and balance on a slippery surface in order to do that, so I was going to reorganize the cabinets and of course when you move things around in the house after they’ve been there for three years it is highly likely you’re going to have to scrub everything clean too, and so here I was, wildly assuming that I could go ahead and mow the yard (an exercise akin to fine needlepoint as there are about two dozen trees of various sizes ranging from seedling to three-year-old fruit trees on the property that need to be carefully maneuvered around) then reorganize those cabinets and then still have the time, not to mention the energy, to sit down and look at photographs. Last night after dinner I did reorganize those cabinets. The ice cubes are still a dream.
It is. June 10, Columbia (Missouri.) Sometimes I just want to scream like a blade. It comes unannounced like a tide and it is gone just as easy. The ire the resentment, the tears, they feel sweet, all the bad useless demons and the silence (never the silence) laughing because I am alone and maybe the intensity of what I take from photography won’t be enough, the kids, skipping stones gone, it doesn’t last long, I know I am strong and beauty is too overwhelming, it is there and it is what it is, and so it is with losing what I thought was love.
Annie. June 11, Columbia (Missouri.) I woke up to the sounds of her silence and I miss her terribly. For months now I have been looking for someone who would be to Annie what I cannot be, give her the time and attention she deserves, love her as she deserves, and now I have and the old saying is assaulting me, yes you don’t know how much you love until you’ve lost. And I’m not talking about my husband. It’s a beautiful morning, quiet, the house is empty, I am alone in it, the light is beginning to flood through the east windows, it’s warm already, I sit with a book in the front yard among the apple trees and the redbud trees and the birch and it is quiet and she is not here. I have a toothache, I try not to think about it, I drink the morning coffee, more ritual than taste. In a moment it will be too hot to sit outside, a good day to have a water gun fight, like the one the boys had last night with their friends who came over from across the street and the house behind our house, and I said water the seedlings while you’re at it and they didn’t listen, I hung the towels and the shirts out to dry out on the porch, it had been a hot day and I drenched my self with the garden hose after my bike ride from work in the afternoon. Then I took Annie for a walk. She’s not here and I miss her.
The rain. June 20, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) The rains came in sheets and it smelled so good. This was the most joyful event in my life, he said. Let’s go out in the rain, he said. The rains came and we walked out into them and he danced and danced, and jumped and ran, he laughed and he danced and he stuck out his tongue and he said, come with me Mom, come with me and we danced round and round, he took my hand and I got dizzy but he kept going, we celebrated the rain and danced and laughed, and later I took shelter under the porch but Nicolas he kept dancing and hopping, he licked the rain on his hands and he kept dancing, like a kid, now I know where the name comes from. The rain smells so good, he said. Yes, I said, that’s the best part about the rain in the summer, how it smells so good. It hasn’t rained in almost a month and the rain smelled so good and felt even better, and now it’s cool, the shortest night of the year has begun and I opened all the windows and asked the cool to stay. Nicolas is at an art camp, exploring Kandinsky and jazz and beatboxes and how to be in the moment. The other day he brought back a small square aquarelle and pencil painting that is so beautiful, where does it come from? And the rain came, and he danced, Mom I want to dance and it feels so good, it is the most joyful event in my life. I couldn’t take a picture because the rain was coming down so hard it painted sheets around him, and it was so achingly perfect in joy. You didn’t want to miss any of it. It was the summer solstice and Nicolas danced in the crashing rain, and licked his hands, and made it the longest most joyful day.
Summer is gone. August 23, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) I have missed writing. I’ve missed the act of writing and I’ve missed on the writing, and the summer is gone and with it the easy slacking off of things of no particular interest, like routine and admonitions and rules in the sand. It is a hard discipline, that slackening, in the end, because it means letting go of that constant and oh so illusory need for control that I seem to have, such a common illusion and such a destructive one. In summer things tend to escape my control, and that may be the most useful thing I can teach the kids. Photography is about control too, come to think of it. Don’t we say that we “capture” a moment, a face, a feeling, a scene? It is the same as controlling it, really: to make reality ours, to carve it into something we can control, display, share as our creation. But what’s there to capture? It is there, no matter what, and a photograph is as unreal as a drawing in the sand. It is as unreal as the big top rising out of a nondescript field and evaporating into the night in the same day, that spectacle I used to never stop marveling at, seeing the tent being raised each and every morning, when we were a circus family, and coming down at night to leave only images, memories, a feeling, love. Oh how I miss it. The ephemerality the spontaneity the lightness of being, every morning, and every night, over and over repeated, and I thought I learned to live fully and let go of the illusions of securing that moment, and I don’t think I learned at all. Summer is gone, all right.
Friends in photography. September 30, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) Last week end was endless. Old friends came to visit on Saturday, and ended up staying the whole day, and the day seemed to stretch and fill and grow, taking up all those years of absence in, and as the week started it felt as if it had been much more than just a day, every moment lived fully in it, as they stayed on and the hours went by and we talked endlessly around the kitchen table, after they emergency-babysat the boys while I went to a photo shoot in the morning and came back two hours late, here they were, early in the morning last Saturday, twenty-two years later, knocking on the door, looking sounding laughing the same, and we picked up the conversation where we must have left it, all those years ago, between here and Palestine, or is it Paris. Good friends are like magic: they do away with time. Twenty-two years and it’s like yesterday. Dick was a graduate student in the Photojournalism program at Mizzou, like me. He is now a managing editor at an established magazine. He and Kathy introduced me to their daughter, whom I’d never met. She goes to Mizzou, too, and to the Journalism sequence there, closing the loop of our lives in a wink. We used to get together, a group of grad students and then some, for Sunday brunches that lasted forever and involved reading poetry and talking about art, when we were not eating or cooking or fervently discussing photography, or world affairs. What I do remember most is a feeling, and the sound of the laughter we shared, and that there was always coffee. This was twenty-two years ago. Last Saturday we had lots of coffee, and French cheese, and we sat around the kitchen table for hours on end. They had to go back the next day but it doesn’t matter, they’re here no matter what. Good friends are like magic.
Celebrations. October 20, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) I celebrate the little things, and rejoice in them. This is what I wanted to write about tonight. The struggles feel real, they sting and they may hurt but they are necessary and ephemeral, just like the laughter, the wild laughter of Nicolas. Nicolas struggles with low self-esteem and told me last night in a fit of crying that he thinks nobody loves him. It breaks my heart. This is what I wanted to write about tonight. I celebrate the little things and the struggles not because I have to but because they are my tapestry. Nicolas woke up smiling and the day went on breathing lighter. The day was full of work and meetings, the boys were at cross-country practice and it had turned cold, and I drove over even though it was not my carpooling day to bring them their water bottles, for they had forgotten them this morning. The night was coming fast as they ran back toward us, a coach and some parents, and their silhouettes were vague. They felt cold but they were warm from running. Nobody lingered. Afterward we drive home and they sang in the car, and we ate the dinner I had made yesterday, rice and bean soup and a cookie pie I made yesterday because the oven was already warm from baking the bread. This is it. Earlier there was the light on the fading grape leaves on the porch, resplendent in the moment, asking me to give thanks, and rest in that. It is all in that moment.
Exuberance. October 24, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) It is an evening like a rainbow. The girls are playing in the neighbor’s yard, all these girls, friends, the ones from the neighbor in the back and the ones next door, so I tell the boys and they come out running, running to Addie’s blond ponytails and Soveryn’s brown pigtails, and her big sister Klaye’s caramel skin is glowing in the fading light against her blue shirt, the bright yellow pompoms from this weekend’s Homecoming parade that Lidia swerves around stand out against the grass, and Dylan rushes back in to our house saying I’ve got to get ready for battle and when he rushes back out I can’t see his face, he’s all ninja. The grass is turning brown in patches but it is still fair outside. I have the urge to take pictures of all this exuberance, of the mundane joy of living right here now, in the soft dusk of a fall Monday, the myriad colors of their faces, and there is the fulfillment of using the new camera, a newer refurbished camera I marvel at like a kid, and we’re all out there, Jason, my neighbor, and I and all these kids, and he says I just enjoy watching the show. Dinner will be yesterday’s pasta and a green smoothie, eat your vegetables, be happy, there’s the new camera and all the colors of our lives. I see my life better through a camera. It makes everything taste better to my heart’s eyes.
Baroque. October 27, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) It’s Halloween. It’s almost Halloween, three days left, the kids made costumes from scratch, and I did nothing. From paper bags and cereal boxes, recycled plastic and paper, and much thought, and what sounded like endless debate between themselves, and urgency, because they are at that age still, not just quite over that age where it truly matters. This is what the week looks like. I take a picture of their costume in the baroque mess of my house. That and a friend from a buried past visiting in a whiff, a photographer friend, a Mom of two boys, accomplished and questioning, working on, work that matters, meaningful and beautiful work. That the thought of the future opening, light with possibilities, just like that, and the engrossing sight and smell of fall, sweet and acrid, the relief.
Almost fifty. November 26, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) I’m almost fifty. It doesn’t matter much to anybody but me. I’ll still get up in the morning and make lunch boxes, feed the cats and the hens and wake up the kids, plan meals and go buy groceries and cook, go around on my bike, give tutoring lessons to support myself until I can do that through photography. One day, when I’m fifty-one. (I couldn’t write these past weeks. The election just floored me, then spurred me to action, with a passion and urgency that has left no time left for writing.)
Just starting. December 7, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) In a moment of rare quiet solitude this morning I was reading a New Yorker profile of Pedro Almódovar and when I got to the part where he talks about losses, and how he feels them differently now that he’s older, it made me reflect on the milestone I just passed, turning fifty. After a week of sheer joy with friends, basking in their love and partying as if I were twenty, it is time to start reflecting: those symbols, milestones, rituals, the heightened steps on the sometimes chaotic and haphazard and always uncontrollable path of our lives, there to help the fog lift. Turning thirty was a momentous time; I had made it a symbol and a hope, a milestone when I would start freeing myself from whatever pain was tying me down, and that’s what I did, on the clock. When I turned thirty I stopped feeling sorry for my poor white-and-blue-eyed privileged daughter of the bohemian bourgeoisie self with a sudden handicap (I turned deaf around my mid-twenties from a pool of bad genes) and an abysmal self-image (becoming a photographer better to hide.) I started therapy and I started reading everything I could on Buddhism and I started practicing meditation; I started the process of being fitted with hearing aids and rediscovering the world of sound and talk, the social world I had been slowly leaving out of fear, I started consulting surgeons to find out if a minor birth defect that had come to define my life could be addressed (it could not, really, and so it is, and it stopped defining my life), I started on the path, and I skipped and ran, sometimes, and as I turn fifty I’m just finally learning to fly. Learning to fly free and taking others by the hand. The fog finally lifted. Flying high free and strong, teaching my sons to do the same and take others by the hand as they soar. It is grey and cold today, winter is settling, and we’re learning to fly together in the little house with all the colors, and there’s no stopping us. The sky is clear above the winter clouds, the image is coming into focus, we’ll be flying high because these times demand it and the losses are acute when you’re older but they’ve always been. It is not about turning fifty and hoping for fifty-five more, it is about coming into focus, assessing the essential, art and ideas and actions hand in heart in hand. I’m just starting.
That picture. December 19, 2016, Columbia (Missouri.) That picture. The bravery of that AP photographer. The poise. The white walls, the black suit, the art on the walls, pictures. That picture. I wonder if I would show such bravery and poise in such circumstances. I hope I never find out. Today was a snow day for us, crowning a weekend of winter wonderland and sweet things to come. We were running errands. I was getting my hair colored. Standing there while the kids were getting their hair cut while I waited for the color to take, chatting with Ellie, the hairdresser from Nicaragua whom I’ve grown to love over my monthly vanity rendezvous, chatting about family and the cost of health insurance and how to make churros over the cup of coffee she always offers while we wait, but today she was cutting the kids’ hair and I checked my phone for news and there was the news, and that picture. The picture was going viral on social media, on its way to a Pulitzer, someone among all the photojournalists reacting on a friend’s social media page said. That picture, a punch in the gut. Eight shots, shouting “Don’t forget Aleppo!, Don’t forget Syria!” The young man, so sharply dressed, shouting and threatening the crowd after shooting the Russian ambassador to Turkey, black against the white background, it all goes so fast and there is that picture, a photographer was there and what he did is incredible. The picture so crisp in such a tense situation, and the contrast, the clash of black and white, the face of rage against the outstretched body of the ambassador, the suit flowing, the finger raised, nothing else and everything is there. The elegant and sober setting and this young man, his rage, but he is so composed, look at his trigger finger, somebody else on that photojournalists’ thread on social media said, he has his finger outstretched and not actually on the trigger, while throwing the Tawhid hand sign, the universal raised index finger sign that ISIS has adopted and twisted, the Tawhid the belief in the oneness of god, but for ISIS a sinister signifier of extremist rejection of any and all other views. That picture won’t let me sleep. What bravery in that photographer and what an image. In its perfection it reminds me of James Nachtwey’s images of the Somalia famine and how their beauty raised a storm of ethical questions among us photojournalists but ultimately prevailed: in our job as visual communicators, the reality of the horrors we may be called to cover and convey demands no less than that quality, and far from glorifying horrors and making us insensitive to them, powerful and beautiful images are the best tools we have to bear witness. That picture is already an icon. Here in my world I had taken a picture of an angel.
The milk. January 6, 2017, Columbia (Missouri.) The diminutive waves on the surface of the milk when it is heating up. Their undulation. The folds as if of fresh-laundered sheets. Satin white. Dark bubbles lurking underneath. It snowed yesterday, and it is achingly cold. The kids made a snowman that looks like a teepee; its hat and scarf and the two juggling balls they gave it for eyes were still there today when we checked after school. We had hot cocoa for dinner, because it felt like it, with the French bread the store bakes fresh in the evening. I stood watching the milk lest it burn and spill. I stood there watching the little satin waves come up and dance like flames, soft and quick and supple, and disappear. Then the milk came to a near-boil and I turned off the heat. It was time to eat. The spell had come and gone, its job done. It is a new year. The holidays are hard but these were fine, as they come, even joyous, and the happiness in small things still grows, in me, amidst the anguish of the new order and the monumental waves sweeping the world, and me, migrations and dislocations, hatreds, divisions, all the ugly, but also the yearning for connection, and the stubborn progress I want to believe we are still making in the direction of lofty goals like acceptance and respect. Even though I’m always drawn to the darkness in photographs, I find the unnecessary and beautiful perfection of the little waves on the surface of the milk one more reason to cultivate hope, and write.