Purpose

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It is amazing to me just how far one can come in a short while.  I’ve been preparing for my first big hearing at the firm since Monday, and the fact that I am calm and confident this morning is a far cry from the panic I used to feel what I had to go before a judge and argue my client’s case.  The last time I argued a motion for summary judgment, I was at a different firm and certainly in a different place.  I was sweating profusely, my hands were shaking, and I was completely overwhelmed.

This photograph was taken in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.  I do not know the man who gives his silhouette to the scene, but I purposely framed the shots so that he was nearly out of the photograph.  It wasn’t that he was walking quickly; instead, he was walking with purpose.  These days I feel like I am walking with a purpose, because my life has purpose.  My kids, my wife, my job, my writing—all these things give my life meaning.

Still, there is a little voice inside me, faint and almost unrecognizable, which used to scream “You’re going to fail.”  And I did fail.  I failed because this voice overcame me and drowned out my confidence, my self-worth, and my abilities to function.  Nowadays, I can rarely hear this voice unless I let myself listen for it.  When that happens, I distract myself with writing or tending to my plants in my office (which the other associates have lovingly dubbed the “Grove”).  I will not let this terror control me any longer.  That part of my life is over, never to be revisited again.  I am thankful that, like the silhouette in the picture, I am passing through with a purpose.

Ode

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Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.
Isaiah 57:2

I have met many men who could quote the Bible and many men who preached for a living.  Yet, I have never met a man more learned in the Bible and its teachings than Anna’s great-uncle Michael, who passed away yesterday.  Michael was a lay preacher, and he dedicated his life in an uncommon way to God.  Michael was Anna’s grandfather’s brother, and he was predeceased by his wife auntie Pat.  David, or Ardy as Anna and her sisters called him, was wise beyond measure, and was a strong student of religion.  As successful as he was with his mill, his business, and his family, even David would admit that he could not hold a candle to Michael’s vast ecclesiastical knowledge.

I regret not seeing Michael the last time I was in England.  I hadn’t seen him since David’s death nine years ago, where he spoke so eloquently about death and the afterlife.  His death leaves a void in our family—I say “our” because Anna’s British family has adopted me as one of their own.  It also leaves a void in the community, because a gift and a dedication like Michael’s is almost unheard of these days.  Very few laypeople dedicated their lives to the study of God’s words like Michael did, and even fewer such people exist today.

We will go to church this weekend, and I will think fondly of Michael finally being home.  His belief was absolute, and I know that he did not mourn his passing but instead embraced it with the knowledge that his “light and momentary troubles” in this life achieved for him “an eternal glory that far outweighed them all.”  Corinthians 4:17.

I rarely quote from the Bible, mostly because I know so few verses, but also because my faith has been tested so much over the past ten years.  With faith restored, I do not feel as hypocritical drawing from the knowledge that has been set down by generations of believers.  And so I close with a quote, as Michael would have done.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:6-8

Part of Me Remains

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Life has taken me down many paths, some of which I stayed on for far too long, and some of which I am still journeying.  This photograph was taken on the moors in West Yorkshire near Howarth, where the Brontë sisters lived and wrote.  The road leads from Top Withens, the supposed inspiration for Heathcliff’s home in Wuthering Heights.  I first visited this place over a decade ago, before Anna and I were married, before the kids, and before I had traveled down any truly difficult paths.

We were engaged in these hills, under this sky, and returning here after a decade since Anna’s grandfather died felt like coming home.  I would be happy here in the countryside living a quiet rural life, walking the moors and communing with the sheep.  West Yorkshire is so antithetical to Northeast Florida, in its weather, its topography, and even its residents.  When I am in England, walking a mile to the store just seems appropriate.  At home, we live about a mile from the store, and I have never once walked there.  I can explain it.  The country just brings out something in me.

I would follow this path as far as it led, catching another one until I reached the coast, where I would find another leading elsewhere and follow that one to the end.  Anna has ties here, and I know that we will always return.  I hope that it will not take me another nine years to find my way back to these paths, but perhaps then I will appreciate them even more than I appreciated them last year, when I appreciated them exponentially more than I did the first time I came upon them.  Some not-so-small part of me remains in the heather and the ferns, on top of the moors, and in the sun-soaked valleys.  One day I’ll return, but I won’t take this part of me home.  It is where it is meant to be.

The Anecdote of the Jar

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Boneyard Beach on Big Talbot Island is one of my absolute favorite places to photograph in Northeast Florida.  I often lament how uninspiring North Florida is for photography, because there are very few changes in topography.  I think my feelings on the subject are driven in large part due to the mosquitoes and ever-present danger of an alligator or water moccasin deciding that this is the day to make me a statistic or a cautionary tale.  Although I have seen an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake in the surf before, he was as confused (if not more) than I was as to how he found himself there, and though he was quite large, he posed no threat to me.  Thus, the beach is safe.

Having grown up near the beach, I take it for granted.  I also take for granted the incredible wildlife we have from wild roseate spoonbills and butterflies of every variation, to even the bobcat and Florida panther.  (I have seen my share of bobcats, but thankfully I have never had a run-in with panther.)  Yet there is something so unique about walking through scrub oak woods, hearing the crash of waves, and finding yourself not on an empty beach, but on a beach filled with old, weathered live oaks lying there like skeletons strewn about by hurricanes.

Ironically, this photograph of a driftwood oak, still tethered by its roots to the beach, was taken in Jekyll Island—another barrier island about an hour north of Big Talbot in Georgia.  This photo captures a bit of what struck me so emphatically when I came upon the tree.  Unlike Big Talbot, this was the only driftwood feature on the entire beach.  But for this tree, it would have been a perfectly ordinary, flat, featureless Florida beach, and I would not have given it a second thought.  Because of this tree, however, the beach took on meaning.

Wallace Stephen once wrote a poem about the universe taking shape around a jar he placed on a hill in rural Tennessee.  It is a perfectly beautiful little poem that has always resonated with me.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.  
It made the slovenly wilderness  
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.  
The jar was round upon the ground  
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.  
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,  
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Around the jar the world gained meaning.  What was once a wilderness was now not so wild, as it found order in relation to this jar.  In the same way, this featureless beach took shape around this tree.  The beach that was perfectly ordinary became extraordinary because of this tree, just as the wilderness became forever commended to words by Stevens and became a part of American literature because of that simple little jar.  This tree is a testament to how some otherwise ordinary object can bring meaning to an otherwise ordinary, pedestrian setting.

Bixby Panorama

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Even the middle of the day on the Pacific Coast Highway is breathtaking.  The marine layer has rolled off the water and into the mountains, capping them with a low smoky halo.  The views are breathtaking, and I want to pull off around each new bend, and especially when we get to the Bixby Canyon Bridge, which is but a speck in this panorama.  (A closer shot is included below.)  The Bixby Canyon Bridge has inspired many artists, songwriters, etc.  At one point it was the tallest and longest span bridge in the state of California, and the engineering feats taken to build it were monumental.

This photograph, one of the rare colored ones that I prefer to the monochrome, has always looked more like a painting to me than a photo.  I have gotten closer to where I plan and pose photos with an artistic mind over the course of the last few years, and as such my ratio of purely documentary (read “bad”) photographs to “keepers” has begun to increase significantly.  In many photographs, I am fortunate that I am living in an era of post-processing software.  In the photograph I posted yesterday of the silhouette of a woman, herself taking a picture of the waves, I did not notice her at first when I took the photograph.  She was a happy coincidence, and I focused on her more and more, but I could not capture the essence of the candid photo.  Dumb luck has proven to make some great photographs, at least in my brief career.

For this one, I actually used a tripod – a rarity in my California photos – because I first have to lug it on the plane, and then lug it on my hikes and set it up any time I want to use it.  With an impatient four year old (at the time) this was quite a “do” as Anna’s British cousins would say.  But I had planned the shot for months.  I wanted to capture it from down the coast from the first moment I realized what I was looking at.  These days, I am taking the time to enjoy the artistic act, and not just snapping the shutter and hoping I capture something amazing.  I like the process.

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On Discovering an Artist’s Mind

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Salt lingers on my tongue, the shore in my nostrils, even five years later, and miles removed from the rough-hewn valley, where I tried in vain to compose the essence of the waves, the spirit of the ocean in a single exposure.  My camera pulled at me as we walked gracelessly across the rocks.  That’s where Kemper and I found her, sure-footed above the whitecaps, a small silhouette against a dense layer of mist that settled over the shoreline, whitewashing the coal-black granite.

What does it say that I, myself, framed her body against the foothills, lingering on the shadow-play of her form, as if the roil of the ocean were quotidian; yet her profile swelled in the portrait like a distant odalisque?  What draws me back to her silhouette on that promontory, at that moment–that moment that will never be forgotten, though she may not have know that we were even there.

Aide-Mémoire

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In the nape of the cove, above the canopy of bull kelp, where the thick marine layer divides the day by half like a subtle reminder to drink in the sweet salinity of the Pacific, a small sailboat drifts in the ebbing tide, its mainsail rippling ever so slightly suggesting a gentle draft.

But the shore is still where I sit languidly, my back to the seawall watching the setters splash in the dying waves, my wife a stone’s throw away with our napping children whose bedroom windows are cracked ever so slightly so that the sea salt sweeps over their peaceful brows.

The air is different here, the coves tranquil and silent, where we may rest anchorless and safe in the still waters, whose undercurrents remind me dolefully that this place is not my home; I am a peregrine, like the sailboat, who must return eventually to port.