Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Choosing peace

On Friday I dressed up a bit (from my usual sweatshirt and jeans to "business casual") and took the ferry in to attend a retirement party. There were a number of old acquaintances present, and several of them asked if I was still doing photography.

It was odd -- I had to stop and think a minute. So much of my energy is around writing and poetry these days that I no longer think of myself as just "a photographer" -- a self-description I remember had a taste of the miraculous about it as little as ten years ago. But am I still a photographer? Yes, I guess I must be, because a day rarely goes by that I don't take a photograph; my camera is always somewhere close by. And a day NEVER goes by that I don't PLAY with photographs -- like this one, for example.

This was shot from a cab window in Taipei when we visited our daughter there a year and a half ago. And like many other hundreds -- well, probably thousands -- of photographs, it's been sitting quietly in a file folder waiting to be discovered. This image is cropped a bit, but otherwise unretouched, and I think the colors in it are simply amazing: almost a complete spectrum. But then, Taipei was like that -- especially at night: it was almost as if the Taiwanese could never have too much color. Or too much clutter, for that matter: everything was very busy there, and it seemed the primary activity was all about shopping, shopping, shopping.

It reminded me of the period back in my early thirties, the time between husbands when I lived in an apartment in Boston's Back Bay and worked at an ad agency. The apartment was quite beautiful -- brick walls and a bay window, though for the life of me I am unable to picture anything else now about the inside of it -- and Back Bay is a lovely, serene neighborhood, very tasteful and elegant. My commute was easy -- a short walk to the T, only one transfer to get to Copley Plaza -- so I didn't even need a car.

But the man who is now my husband was still living in New Hampshire back then, and though I had come to Boston because I wasn't at all sure that relationship had any future, each weekend I found myself heading back to him on a bus. And what I remember most about that weekly bus ride is the huge sense of relief that would steal over me as we left the city and headed into the green of the countryside. It was almost as if working in the city was like picking blackberries: I would head home covered in tiny irritating scratches, and the green trees and rolling hills were a visual balm soothing away those distracting wounds.

In a lot of ways, that is what meditation does for me now, I think. When I settle into my chair, my nerves are sort of sparkling and itchy with thoughts, ideas, concerns, plans... all the challenges that stir me up are fermenting in there, each with its own strident voice, like little children waving their hands excitedly in a classroom: "Think about me!" they cry, "Think about me!" And as I take the time to stop, to breathe, to center myself, they gradually subside, first lining up to collect their little mats and quilts and then lying down for their naps. One or the other may be particularly twitchy that day, but if I'm lucky (and fierce about insisting they quiet down) a sense of peace steals over the room, a peace which feeds and restores my soul in a way that bright colors and busyness -- however attractive they may be -- never can.

Which is why, I suspect, that photos like this one tend to lie in the file folder undetected, and pictures of green trees and water, grassy hillsides, flowers and animals have a way of finding themselves onto this blog rather quickly: because, given the choice between peace and activity, I repeatedly choose peace. And it was coming to see and accept that that led me to understand my calling to be a contemplative photographer.

My mother's voice just popped up here: she wants to tell you that, yes, I always was a lazy child! And now I see that this is one way in my life that I have been able to re-baptize one of those bad kids on the playground I talked about a few days ago. Because I know now, right to the core of my being, that I am far from lazy: in fact, I am rarely still, always planning and looking ahead. Which is one reason why meditation is so important for me: it helps me to maintain a critical balance. What my mother saw as lazy was in fact my determined longing for peace and balance -- something she was never able to find (I'm not sure she even knew she needed to look for it!) and I found difficult to achieve in her presence.

Which helps me understand that the other "bad kids" in there may have similar roots. And if re-baptizing this one has resulted in a whole new definition for my life and purpose (from corporate executive to contemplative photographer IS rather a leap, if you think about it, even if it was more a slow crawl than a leap), who knows what looking at the others may bring!

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