‘It’s a cruel and random world, but the chaos is all so beautiful.’ ~Hiromu Arakawa.
In some ways it’s hard, for me, to peg any event, place or work of art as being the best of 2015. There were highs to be sure, but the highpoints of the year were eclipsed in stunning fashion by the lows.
In short, the lows this year were motherfuckers. I seem to be lacking any real objectivity about the last year.
On the bright side, I started this project- The Illustrated Essay- in which I stated that my desire for this project was ” to combine the classic essay form with imagery which mirrors the golden period of photography. In short, I wish to create essays marrying the written word, as created by the likes of John McPhee or Anne Dillard; with the classic photography of say Henri Cartier Bresson or Dorthea Lange .”
Working on this project has been a great learning experience which has forced me to look at the worlds of photography and writing from new perspectives.
To be able to see life anew is always a great gift.
Anyway, it’s not the intent of this piece to autopsy this year’s events or artistic efforts so much as to simply take account of what occurred. Thus, while I’m willing to look back and learn, I’m not so interested in critiquing this work; it’s too green and unformed for such a process anyway. I just want to get the license number of the bus that hit me/us.
There’s also the fact that I’m not big on living in the past, the present takes so much courage and drive that looking in the past is almost always a less than productive exercise.
And yet, as the man said, those who do not learn from the past….Thus one must, from time to time, check the rearview mirror. Now seems as arbitrary a time as any to look back.
In the end, this is sort of a winter count.
A winter count, for those who do not know, is a native American tradition/ process in which one’s personal and/or tribal history is recounted by, often by a pictorial history- traditionally on a hide. The hide becomes a kind of visual history charting what happened that year.
A winter count is a record of history. For generations, Plains Indians drew pictographs to document their daily experiences. The Lakota term for winter count is wniyetu wowapi. The word Wowapi translates as “anything that can be read or counted.” Waniyetu is the Lakota word for year, which is measured from first snow to first snow.
Usually drawn on buffalo skin or deer hide, Lakota winter counts are composed of pictographs organized in spiral or horizontal rows. Each pictograph represents a year in history of a Lakota community. The pictographs were organized in chronological order so that the winter count provided an outline of events for the community’s Keeper or oral historian.
Winter Count is also a wonderful collection of beautiful short stories by one of America’s great authors—Berry Lopez.
Thus this post is my attempt to create my winter count for this year.
In culling the photos in this post- my pictographs-for my winter count- I learned and/or was reminded of the following.
That we are always indebted to those who taught us. I fell in love again with black and white and much of my work reflects that fact. Any success in this monochromatic work can be directly traced back to past work with mentors and teachers Michael Wilson and Melvin Grier.
I am also reminded that life is sometimes more painful than we can imagine. The first photos of this year-chronologically- featured my son Matt. The photos were taken during a trip to Muscle Shoals Al. shortly after he was hospitalized for schizophrenia.
By the end of the year his identical twin Jacob would also be diagnosed, and hospitalized, with schizophrenia. We had been anticipating the possibility. Once an identical twin is diagnosed with schizophrenia, there is a fifty percent chance of his/her sibling will also being diagnosed with the disease.
I learned a long time ago- largely by virtue of my twenty year stint as a trial attorney- that we, each and everyone of us, lead lives which can be turned upside down at any minute. Fairness does not enter into the equation. Life is just painful at times, and sometimes it’s harder than you can believe or even imagine.
“The rain alike fell upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore,” wrote W. Somerset Maugham, in ‘Of Human Bondage.”
I never envisioned that I would have one, let alone, two schizophrenic sons; but life goes on. You can’t do anything about that fact, save decide how to live in response to that new reality. Basically, you can do your best to follow along or be lost. “Life is a sum of all your choices,” said Albert Camus.
And in going forward we learn anew. Creating this winter count has reminded me that in searching we find what we need.
In searching for information about winter counts and Lopez’s book of the same name, for instance, I found a site, in which the author, in quoting Lopez, reminded me that: “Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
To find this reminder at this site was not only helpful but was, in fact, shocking as I learned that the writer of this blog, Valorie Grace Hallinan, “…grew up in a family affected by mental illness.” Specifically, in looking further at the bog, I find that Ms Hallinan lost her, “mother, as I knew her, to schizophrenia.”
Ms Hallinan further writes that, “For me, books were a lifeline – my mentors and teachers, my inspiration, my passage to different worlds both real and imagined.”
I had, in finding Ms Hallinan’s site, googled winter count and Berry Lopez, but not mental illness and not schizophrenia.
Sometimes, out of the blue, life gives you what you neither want nor need. Sometimes life gives you what you have to have.
One of the biggest problems with schizophrenia is that it isolates. It isolates those who stricken with the disease and it isolates that who care for the ill.
To meet such a resource as Ms. Hallinan’s site- to find a kindred lover of literature, if only across the vast gulf of the internet- is just the kind help that Lopez must have envisioned when he wrote: “Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
Coming across her site is one example of the many small gifts I and my family received this year. It’s often such small gifts which keep you sane during these times. It’s often through such small gifts that one survives- with any grace and sanity- the reality of having not one, but two, schizophrenics in the family.
Small gifts are the gifts that keep us treading water in the darkest of times.
In the next month I will publish a piece about how I recently quit working as a concert photographer. For any number of reasons- which are detailed in the piece- I was, after 15 years of shooting music- tired, burned out and disgusted with this type of work, of art.
Ironically, less than a month after writing this piece I accepted- with much misgiving- a friend’s invitation to attend, and photograph, an outdoor music festival in Friendship Indiana.
The odds are astronomical that you’ve ever been to Friendship Indiana. It’s a tiny town in southwest Indiana which sits amongst the region’s alternating cornfields and forested hills.
The Festival- Whispering Beard- is a small one- featuring mostly regional Americana Acts. It happens in August. The weather is normally so hot and humid so as to create the effect that one is sitting, for hours at a time, in a very hot pizza oven. Not a hot pizza oven but a very hot pizza oven. There is little shade. The river had dried up.
There are no real facilities. Most everyone camps. One can pretty much drink beer- look at goods from a number of local vendors- and listen to music from heavily sweating musicians while slowly being baked alive.
There’s also little need to go to the festival if you love this music because you can see almost all of these acts, year round, for $5.00, if not for free, in a comfortable climate controlled tavern near your home.
Did I mention that the people who populate this festival are among the kindest sweetest people you’ll ever meet? The place, despite the miserable weather, was awash in kind strangers.
Saturday night, after falling asleep about 10 pm in an open field, out of sheer exhaustion as it been too hot to even seriously drink into the night; I woke up to find that there was a jam session happening under an awning just 30 yards from me.
The music was amazing and spirited and spontaneous.
I trudged back to my truck, pulled out my cameras- and spent the rest of the night- until 5am- shooting that jam session and portraits of new found friends under a near by street light.
It was 3 am and people had been up for at least one entire day. And yet, no one objected to sitting- or standing- for semi-formal portraits for a photographer they didn’t know in the middle of nowhere Indiana in the heart of the night.
I learned that night that I was not tired and disgusted with music, I was tired and disgusted with those who live and play without love and passion.
Matt’s invitation to the festival was a small gift. People standing for portraits in the middle of the night was a small gift.
And there were large gifts as well.
My beloved staying at home with our sons so I could go back out west, to spend three weeks in a zen monastery, and then shoot the mountains of New Mexico and Southern Colorado, prior to starting nursing school was a very large gift.
The kindness- and assistance- people-especially Becky- gave to me as I stumbled my way back into school, into a difficult nursing program at 53, after been out of school twenty years, was a big gift.
The help we have received from so many kind and dedicated counselors, doctors and therapists has not cured the boys (there is no cure for schizophrenia); but their work has made this curse bearable. That’s a huge gift. Things are hard, but could be so much worse.
The insights I gathered from these gifts- large and small- this year, were not small. They were gifts which allowed me to make my way across the darkness in the worst of times.
These gifts even allowed me to feel grateful while creating this winter count, even given the horrors of the past year.