“…under every deep a lower deep opens”

An editorial note: The title for this post was originally going to be “…but every end is a beginning,” which WordPress informed me was already the name of a previous post made almost exactly one year ago, near the beginning of my sabbatical. Thus, the revised title, also from Emerson’s essay “Circles,” follows shortly thereafter the original; the titular coincidence merely reinforces the prescience his words hold.

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Jottings made on a subway ride from uptown to midtown.

The hot car. A clear sign that my senses are dulled. Sparsely populated, people fanning themselves, riders sitting still and trying to not move unless necessary — I would have noticed in an earlier time. But I’m not too bothered. My body temperature starts to cool soon enough. And I am in a fairly good mood after a day spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom laughter is the first language. In between was a meeting with new colleagues that left me feeling as if I could imagine returning, not just to New York and not merely “to campus” but to the actual institution, to the minutia that signifies the elements of the institutional apparatus that I most loathe: arbitrary and seemingly intractable procedures and policies that people — some people — adhere to seemingly without thinking, without bothering to ask why and assessing their relevance in service of some warped sense of justice or equity or efficacy.

Transfer at 96th Street to the express 2 train. Cool car — as it should be, my internal monologue asserts, chiding me for thinking anything else would be acceptable. Still, I am thankful the underground heat is not saturated with the humidity of the days preceding. My thoughts quickly return to the events of the day, to conversation that meandered from art exhibitions about dust to video art and essays, from home improvement projects to projects of self-improvement, that included the sharing of texts of… well let’s just say texts of all sorts… Suffice it to say, my earlier post about a place and its people rang true again and again today.

I think, too, of this time of transition “back” — about the moments of anxiety that arise each time I realize August is looking me in the face, those moments that I was desperately trying to wish into abeyance. The anxiety is the manifestation of a fear that has been building since that day in late June, while walking back to my hotel from an effecting visit to the Anne Frank Museum, when the image of a way of living untethered to a university first surfaced. That is to say I could imagine a life in which the elements that too often are relegated to the margins, in order to accommodate the aforementioned minutia that swells and multiples with little provocation, are brought into the center — fear, of course, is conjured out of anticipation that the minutiae will overpower all else.

So I set my subconscious loose to formulate a plan to form a writerly commune somewhere in the south of France… or in the north of France… or perhaps in that little town in the middle of France… Well, you get the picture — while the plan simmers and coalesces, the mission at hand will be the practice of mindfulness — not back or forward, but here, now. Tolstoy’s story, “Three Questions,” introduces the idea in this way:

It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid, and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

In short, Tolstoy, via the king and his quest through the land over which he rules, wonders:

  • What is the right time for every action?
  • Who are the most necessary people? (Another interpretation: Who are the most important people?)
  • What is the most important thing to do?

The answers, we might venture, are, respectively: Now, you, this.

And for the panda lovers, here is a frame from John Muth’s picture book take on Tolstoy’s philosophical offering:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… and few more words from near the end of “Circles”

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”

kthxbye!

650. That, according to Jordan Weissman, a writer for The Atlantic, who extrapolated the number from claims about workers’ productivity issued by McKinsey Global Institute, is the number of hours the average “working stiff” spends on email at work. His calculations are as follows:

“we spend 13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email. Assuming two weeks vacation, that multiplies out to 650 hours a year.”

Nevermind the obvious “buts” that undoubtedly come to mind — 13 hours out of how many? The last time my work week was 40 hours — HA! Who gets two weeks vacation? But I email on vacation! — and consider the following math:

An average year has 8760 hours (or, as the musical Rent has drilled into my mind, “525, 600 miiiinnutes!”) — and a leap year, such as the current one, has 24 hours more. The figure of 650 hours, then, or roughly 7%, doesn’t seem quite as egregious as perhaps it’s meant to be. And frankly, I think the approximation of 650 hours per year, which is less than two hours a day, might be a low estimate…for some people…

After all, email needn’t mean the drudgery of replying to inane requests for the same document, statistic, or reference you’ve already sent along at least ten times. But perhaps it can’t be helped, and perhaps that’s why many of us have multiple email accounts — to perpetuate the illusion that we are entirely different people when we check the gmail account versus the .edu one; that the mindful and present person we can be with the former is all but a ghost when we click open the latter…

What is more appalling, however, is the nonchalant recommendation that concludes Weissman’s article:

“McKinsey suggests that by moving to social media-based information platforms — think some of the more recent versions of Microsoft Sharepoint — would make workers 25 percent more productive. True?”

False! My guess is that the average person working within an institution, be it for/non/or anti-profit, has to communicate with a bevy of others — you know the ones: the humorless, the martyrs, the overly performative types — with whom a generic status update or tweet such as “Skpg mtg. Kthxbye!” just wouldn’t feel right. (And now I’m imagining various members of our institutional administration huddled together around someone’s tablet, smartphone, or laptop as they try to decipher that…)

Nor would it “increase productivity” — another much-loathed phrase — because people would be increasingly running around, even more so than now, fretting over the very mechanism that intends to simplify. People already become stressed when composing messages to an audience of one or a few. Dare we imagine the social paralysis that may descend upon the masses if everything was deemed to be necessarily public?! (…even though a very tiny part of me suspects that private is merely an artifact of nostalgia, alive in our memories alone…)

So, to recap:
Less time spent on inane emails that say the same thing 25 times over? Yes!
Imposed socially mediated communication for the sake of some false sense of productivity? Um, maybe not quite.

after the rain

Earlier this week, storm clouds — cirrus, I think, with their thin, layered, sheetlike behavior — tumbled through overhead to deliver to our region the gifts of rain that mimicked the clouds by falling in sheets, unruly winds, and the siren’s song of late dusk light. Naturally, I ran out my door, camera in hand.

 

 

 

s

humans of kerala

The phenomenon that is HONY has inspired numerous photographic spinoffs — among them, (the occasionally quirky captions of) Humans of Paris, (the close-up portraits of) Souls of San Francisco, (the “still finding its groove”) Humans of London, and several more — even as its own viewer base continues to skyrocket, from fewer than two thousand “likes” on facebook when I first learned of it, to near 177K at last count. A few months before stumbling onto this project, the act of taking photos had started to wiggle its way back into my daily practice after slowly leaving some years back, save for the photography and video work that is central to certain parts of my work. But living photographically involves more than fulfilling the impetus to document or capture. The work of photographers that slips into my subconscious, taking root in often inexplicable ways, reflects a way of being that is fueled by an incurable fervor for story, taking in the world as it is, as it could be, as it might be, as it was, as it wasn’t, as it isn’t… and creating artworks as offerings of humanity back to humans. These are not the musings of someone who has “studied” photography, who has majored/minored/or otherwise degreed in arts, art history, fine arts, or the like. No, these are just the the observations of someone who is continually moved by the work in the world that photographs can sometimes do, sublimating cliched boundaries of allegiance and affiliation in the process.

Take for example the following few photographs, some that come from photographers I’ve long loved, others from recent discoveries — all that fall within a loose categorization of “street photographer.”

1. From a recently published collection of photographs by Gordon Parks in the NYTimes Lens section that depicts everyday life in during the 1950s and 60s in the segregated South. His quotidian narrative is enchanting, educative, and occasionally startling. Sparks, who died in 2006, would have turned 100 this year; the same would have been true of my paternal grandfather who only lived until the age of sixty-four, the same age that my father is now. The world has a strange way of grabbing our attention, much like the intersection of color, beauty, and disbelief that collide in Parks’ photos.

2. Photographs of children also enchant me. Specifically photographs from another time that seem to recognize the hidden world of children (long before they become overexposed due to the ubiquity of image making means) continue to weave stories long after first glance. Consider these four images together:



The first two photographs were made by Diane Arbus and the second two by Roy DeCarava. In both of their bodies of photographic work, I find a resonance toward empathy for “people who have been sidelined in one way or another.”* They hold a sympathetic eye toward the people about whose lives they produce stories of images. It may be appropriate to note at this point that while I came to Arbus somewhat recently or late, depending on your point of view, Roy DeCarava has been a treasured name to me for nearly two decades, which coincidentally is how long I have known my spouse, the very one who gifted me with The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a collaboration between DeCarava and Langston Hughes that features the former’s photographs of life and people in Harlem accompanied by the latter’s poetic prose.

Until then — that is, before I held in my hand the square-shaped book that would become the text to which I would return time and time again to remember, to learn, to practice seeing with curiosity and with humility — I had taken pictures with the enthusiasm of a child who was allowed to ride her bike around the block unsupervised. The experience remained new with each venture, limited by my own abilities, and threatened to take me to unfamiliar places; and because of this, my eagerness only grew. I had made good use of the dented and damaged Leica that was said to belong to my uncle but that had taken up permanent residence, at first, in the hallway closest of my childhood home, and then, mysteriously, onto the desk in my bedroom. This hunk of leather casing and mechanical functionality is what I used in my first photography course, before upgrading (or was it a lateral move?) to a Minolta x700, the starter of all starter SLRs. All the while, as I tinkered with buttons and learned to process film, I realize now in retrospect that I wasn’t practicing seeing. I still wasn’t looking. The best photographs I took during those relatively early years of my practice seemed to happen by accident. I never mastered composition or framing, and paid little attention to exposure and depth of field — although, of the latter I took copious notes. But the accidental shots were taken, well, quite by accident: the light catching a friend’s hair in a way that just missed making her look like a well lit and haloed angel; shadows and reflections of a lake underneath a bridge in Boston Common; and portrait of a woman named Janie who was a member of the administrative staff in the organization where I worked right after graduating from college. All were shot in black and white, with knowing subjects, and without hesitation.

3. There are the photographic creations that can seem otherworldly, palpable in their ethereality, haunting even. Some of my favorites come from photographer and educator Mary Ann Reilly who brings the affordances of digital media tool together with photographic images in an effort to say something else, something other than what the image or the enhancements could say on their own. Two examples:

Green Trees

Climbing

4. And another before sharing a few snaps that fulfill the promise of the title of this post. I have mentioned here before the writings of the author Teju Cole — both his book, Open City, and his twitter stream where he composes small fates about news items, largely about the lives of those who have been somehow wounded, occasionally fatally, in another place, in another time. (He explains it better here and here.) Some time last fall, I think, Cole started a second twitter feed from where his photographically inclined self speaks, shares,  probes and renders true Thoreau’s assertion that “The world is but canvas to our imaginations.” His travels take him to far flung corners of this earth, yet with his image makers, both digital and analog, he produces visual artifacts that demand second, third, and fourth viewings. An early favorite of mine was of a young woman sitting at a counter facing the floor to ceiling windows; what I first saw, however, was a ball gown, a regal air, the beauty of solitude. The light and shadows crafted reality out of illusion, and what I recall of it now are hues of red and black and, for some reason, the presence of blue. The actual image seems to no longer be online on the flickr page, so you’ll have to trust me and hope that the image appears in an upcoming exhibit somewhere… Meanwhile, I’ll share another favorite that needs no explanation:

Steven Pinker in India, January 2012

And a link to a recent snap from Brazil that, like several others in a collection he has labeled “Spectral Tendency,” a set (in flickr terms) that seems to be creating a full bodied experience with each photo. There is much that coaxes your gaze further into the image, inviting you to lean in, breathe deeply, see the relations between the on screen players in new ways. Another image in the same set was taken just steps from the Tate Modern, and as with the boys from Brazil, the spectrum is wide as well as deep; the layers are playfully endless. These photographs, as with some of those above and the work of others who take to the proverbial pavement (I’m thinking here of the work of Zun Lee and the roving Underground NY Public Library photographer, for instance), are artifacts redolent of photo making that strives to banish the fourth wall; in these images, photography feels less like something “to look at” and more so as both portal and realm through and into which enters, temporarily shedding the immediate present for the possible present. Photographers — those who live photographically — have been, have become, and continue to be my strongest teachers, for they deal in the currency of seeing.

***

For the past few weeks, with each upload of a new batch of photos to my laptop — itself a version of Christmas morning that foretells of gifts and secret wonders that will soon be revealed — my eyes keep traveling back to the India folder that contains the photos I took during my trip to Kerala earlier this year. They feel different, somehow apart from the other thousands I’ve taken in the past twelve months. Sure, the landscape is unlike that of my other travels, but so is the perspective, the angles, the subject matter. The people. In some of the villages we visited, I was not just photographing daily life, but I became a part of the story. In taking photos, I was also implicitly agreeing to share the photos with the people who were photographed. My last Kerala travelogue will be posted soon, and yes, it will be six months late — so for that reason, I share these photos here, unvarnished, without commentary or further context, save to say that in these images, I feel as if I finally started to see. Each photo suggests a plurality of stories, that is true. But it is the stories that brought them into existence that play on the tiny screen in my mind’s eye when I look at them.

*
*Sebald once said in an interview: “I like to listen to people who have been sidelined in one way or another,” referring to the cone of silence following World War 2. He seemed to understand at an embodied level that stories were lurking everywhere, some that needed little prodding and others that were more reticent to emerge. What has been profoundly humbling has been consistent encounters with the lives of people — in their homes, their places of worship and work, sharing the streets and modes of transportation, sharing a meal. Sebald, too, placed himself in these spaces, listening as he did with both heart and ear; that’s not meant to over sentimentalize the man, but rather to call attention to his studied practice of attending, particular to wounds that may have been heavily scarred over, barely noticeable in some cases, utterly raw in others. He was, as Cole has described, a poet of the disregarded.

it’s the people, stupid

While contemplating ways to turn my sabbatical into a full time gig, another thought has been slow to develop, awaiting, it seems, for the right combination of stop bath and fixer to come together for the image to render. The image, of course, is always there. In what form, to what degree of expression and saturation — that is anyone’s guess. I am referring to the line made famous during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, attributed to “ragin’ Cajun” James Carville, has all the simplicity of a Rubik’s Cube waiting to be restored to color-coded order: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The intended audience for this linguistic artifact of Carville’s arsenal of distinct wordplay was the crop of Clinton campaign workers, but quickly spread and became a catalytic force in the election that shifted voters’ attention toward the early 90s recession and away from the then-current administration’s efforts in the Persian Gulf. A cynic might only see the self-serving nature of this tactic, and certainly such an assessment is not without merit, but it may be equally valid to suggest that this redirection impacted perception as well as interpretation; experience is never unmediated, memories are always colored with the filters of perception.

In my recent travels, therefore, it is telling that the moments of greatest significance have been people, a realization that brings into stark relief that what I miss is tempered by what awaits:

strolling with and without purpose,
a conversation, or many all at once, making short work
of twenty blocks or a few turns around the reservoir,
pausing to mark the path the cherry blossoms make their own
each spring, leaving traces of cotton candy pink on the ground, year round.

the latest adventures of dancing girl and the urban cartographer,
that put petulant antics of impossible characters in perspective.
hesitation, then slow blooming exhilaration on faces, young and younger,
in leaps and laughter.

oh, the laughter… infectious, soothing, a salve for the senses
that blister too swiftly without apt balm,
the space of rumination and silliness*, a most wonderful distraction**
found(ed) in the comfort of friends.

New York and Philadelphia are both gritty cities, that’s true, but the grit, too, has purpose, story, context; and occasionally, the grittiness recedes long enough for the rest of the image to come through. Readjustment from sabbatical back into the awaiting semester — this return from leave, which a follower of a follower on twitter described as “landing” — fills me alternatively with dread and anticipation. The invitation to see the familiar anew, however, has the potential to serve as a parachute to soften the landing. Knowing when to pull the handle to deploy the chute in time can be tricky when you’re flying through the air. New toys and old friends can help.

Part of the seeing, again, collection:

Philadelphia

Philadelphia

20120725_095132

 

 

…so many previously overlooked or unrecognized corners teeming with stories if someone is willing to ask; conversations yet to be had; words to be written and read; ingredients awaiting a turn in the skilllet or chopping block; battles to be fought for the purposes of larger goals; goals to reconsider.

Yes, perhaps returning won’t be so bad after all…

 

*and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll click on silliness above… may cause giggling, so put your headphones on.
* wherein distractions are, of course, the very stuff of life. click and read the longer post by a kindred ruminator, another interweb stumble-upon.

of poets and friends

“The poet speaks only those thoughts that come unbidden, like the wind that stirs the trees, and men cannot help but listen. He is not listened to, but heard.”

Thoreau, May 6, 1841, Journal

***

“As when the light bulb goes out on the stair, and the hand follows—trusting it—the blind banister rail that finds its way in the dark.”

Tomas Tranströmer, Schubertiana