16 Sep Circles
Sometimes photographers like myself look at their work and figure out what they’re thinking about rather than vice versa. That is to say, sometimes we go out shooting without knowing what we’re looking for until we go back through our images. Recently, I was in Santa Fe and I found myself drawn to roadside memorials. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I passed one today in North Carolina, I saw my fascination flare once again.
As I spend more time meditating and focusing on the mind body connection, I have also become more interested in the relationship between birth and death. There hasn’t been a lot of birth in my life recently as my kids are 8 and 12. However, last night, my sister’s birthday intersected with my father’s death in interesting ways that illuminate the connection between family and the passages of birth, and of death. In college I studied a lot about the process, rituals and structures of religion, but I don’t think I was as connected to the impulses and meanings that underlie the different practices. It is significant, though, that all religions place great emphasis on both.
Last night, right after my wife and I headed out to pick out kittens with our kids, I got a last minute text from my sister inviting us over to celebrate her birthday. An hour later, after picking out two cute kittens, we drove towards her house and caught sight of my sister out walking. She has an intense fascination with numbers, especially in relation to birth and death. The previous day, at a neighbor’s funeral, I overheard her asking several people questions about the dates of significant births and deaths. She makes sense of these numbers in ways that I don’t understand, but that have meaning for her, so I try to follow the logic. I’m not always able to see the significance that she does, but I do understand her. As she said to me this morning, she and I speak different languages, but we’re often saying the same thing.
When she showed up from her walk she was a little agitated and asked me to take a quick stroll with her. Once we were outside she pointed out a license plate that had three letters and then 1964 (her birth year). I thought that was a cute coincidence. Catty corner to this car was a license plate that said “Dadsgirl 3”. 3 is a number that has a lot of significance to my sister, and she often refers to the fact that our father called her “Daddy’s little girl”. None of that is too crazy or unbelievable, but what happened later made the hair stand up on my neck.
One of the reasons that my wife and I brought our kids to live in Chapel Hill was to be closer to my mother, but also to be closer to my sister and her family. This birthday celebration was subdued and relaxed and it was really nice for us all to be together. When I got home later that evening I sat down to deal with my phone. It’s camera went dead, and as a photographer who has mostly worked with my phone for the last year, this was a difficult situation.
My father hated it when I took pictures of him. I have a collage that I put together one time of him chasing me in his bathrobe trying to knock the camera out of my hands with his newspaper. I was out taking pictures in the meadow behind my house when the camera went black and never came back on. For years it has felt like my father, who is no longer alive, has been involved with things breaking. A couple of months earlier, almost every appliance in our house broke within a couple of days of what would have been his 80th birthday. It’s easy to dismiss things like this as coincidence, but for the past 8 years, weird things happen around his birthday and the anniversary of his death. It has been difficult for me to ascribe meaning to these events, but they feel connected to him.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about doing less, so I struggled with whether or not to fix it or just let it be. As important as photography is to me, it’s clear that it also gets in the way of my being present for myself, and for my family.
After hours on chat with a tech, the phone wouldn’t work and I had lost all my contacts, photos, and preferences. I was frustrated. Checking my mail I saw that a neighbor was offering an iPod Touch to anyone who came and got it. I quickly asked for it – thinking I could use it as a camera until I get a new phone, and then pass it on to my daughter. She responded immediately that I should come and get it.
Taking a break from the tech issues, I prepared to walk over and looked up the address on a map around 9:40. I was a little taken aback to see that it faced the intersection in which my father was hit by a car and killed. As I approached the house, I started to think about something my sister had said at dinner, “I’m not 50 yet! I wasn’t born until 9:55.” She was born on 9/9/1964. My mother was born on 12/12. My brother and I were born on 2/2. My wife was born on 5/5. It’s easy to see how my sister got caught up with the significance of numbers. The fact that I was approaching this spot at the time of my sister’s birth seemed surreal. The hair stood up on my neck in a way that I have only read about. I felt scared like the feeling of going out into the dark when I was 8. As I got to the house to grab the iPod, I started to calm down. Unfortunately, someone else on the list serve had come and taken it, so I headed back. The fear subsided and I began to think about what had just happened.
I grew up in a home where we didn’t practice religion, so I had no real experience with ritual. In college I studied it, but I didn’t “believe in it”. But there are reasons that we pay so much attention to birth and to death. They hint at, and might even be, a connection to another dimension. The funeral that I attended the previous day was a Episcopalian service, so it was filled with ritual, and I was fascinated by the ideas and impulses behind them. The rituals were designed to create pathways between this world and “the next” one.
Earlier that evening, just before I left my sister’s house, my nephew had me read a short paper he had written for college. It focused on Atticus Finch, and the way in which he punished his son by having him read to his mean, sickly, neighbor for ruining one her plants. More importantly, Atticus saw it as a way for his son to learn an important lesson. The reading acted as a distraction for the neighbor as she withdrew from an addiction to morphine. She wanted nothing to tie her to weakness, or this world, when she went to the next one. She wanted to start fresh. Shortly after the reading stopped, she passed away, free of her addiction.
Stories like this are like messages from another dimension, bringing us wisdom and lessons that have been encoded in our culture. I have been thinking a great deal about how we learn, and communicate, across time and space. My father was an amazing communicator and storyteller. I often think about, and refer to the piece he read at our wedding. Every time I read it I find new meaning. When I told my sister how freaked out I was by this situation she asked me what I was afraid of. She’s right, I can see that I have nothing to fear.