When I first began to explore the healing possibilities of photography, I was living on a very small island up in the San Juans. There were only 160 year-round residents, the store was a general store run by Franciscan nuns and closed on Sundays, and the only other facilities on the island were a pool, a school with 10 students between kindergarten and eighth grade, a library, a museum, and a community center.
Not a lot to work with, you might say. But, oh, the beaches! There were beaches all the way around the island, most everything accessible to the general population (since we all knew one another), and on the south side they were covered with amazing driftwood.
My mother died very suddenly in January of 1997, less than a year after we moved to the island, after a routine operation to replace a defective heart valve. And as I walked the beaches afterwards, in the fog and rain and mist that dominated those winter days, trying to cope with the mixed feelings of grief, hurt, rage and guilt that were pouring through me, every contorted piece of driftwood looked like a heart; every branch an artery or vein through which life no longer coursed.
I began bringing my camera along on these walks, and soon realized that when the driftwood was wet -- which at that time of year it usually was -- it would display a surprising range of color. I was photographing only for myself at that point, and began to look forward with great anticipation, not just to taking closeup shots of the contorted wood formations, but to getting the prints back later and seeing the sort of Rorshach images that emerged.
It was at this point that the men who developed my work for me (I always had to go off-island to get prints) began suggesting I explore the possibility of selling at galleries, and when a neighbor suggested a particular gallery in Friday Harbor, I took over the driftwood photos and they immediately invited me to show my work.
But by then I was taking more traditional shots as well: images of beautiful sunsets, ferries passing by, and the elderly dinghies and sailboats that are so much a part of island life, and eventually the gallery realized that it was those images that sold. Soon the driftwood pictures began to take a back seat to the more commercially appealing work, and then we moved to other islands with considerably less beach access and the driftwood photos, which by then filled three albums (there are almost a thousand of them!) became just a part of my past.
When we moved to Bainbridge, I discovered Waterfront Park with its apparently unlimited collection of small wooden working dinghies, and the dinghies became the obsession for me that the driftwood had been before. For several years I would rise with the dawn -- whenever it fell -- and if there was fog, or no wind, I would head for the dock with my camera and capture the boats of the day.
The boat pictures sold beautifully. But like the driftwood, they were often gray or brown and I began longing for more color. So my subject matter began to expand and eventually I stopped going to the docks in the morning.
Fast forward now to Capri, which we visited on a day trip from Naples with my husband and brother-in-law on our third day in Italy. And you can imagine my delight when we pulled into the harbor of that beautiful island and there were these spectacular dinghies stretched out as far as the eye could see! In some ways this photo has everything: the boats, the colors, the amazing light, the water, the beach... but of course, this was not what the rest of the tour had come to see, so instead of lingering at the waterfront I found myself on a bus heading up the steep winding roads to the villages and shops above.
So where am I going with this? Perhaps what I want to say is that life is full of losses, both great and small; it doesn't always take us where we want to go. Or maybe it's that life has different seasons, and the things which we are passionate about in one season will fade in the next, though the memory of them will continue to pluck at our heartstrings.
And though the huge losses we experience will mark us forever, with the smaller ones -- whether losses of our health, our interests, or our surroundings -- we always have a choice. We can choose to spend our days mourning the change, complaining relentlessly about not having access to that which we loved, or basking determinedly in the memory of what was.
Or we can get on the bus and climb to the top of the next hill to see what awaits us next. Surely there will be something there for us to celebrate. It won't be the same; it won't stimulate us in the same way. But perhaps it will awaken some other part of us; perhaps a new vision, or skill, or path, or love will emerge. And that can only happen if we can make the choice to be present to what IS; to what is happening now, in this moment, separate from the relentless churning of our past- and future- obsessed minds.