Paths

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The depth of Robert Frost’s most famous poem, The Road not Taken, is often overlooked.  The poem is remembered by the lines “two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by.”  The poem, though, is tinged with regret (“And sorry I could not travel both”), and it reflects the difficult choices life presents us when we come to a metaphorical fork in the road.  (Yogi Berra’s sage advice to “take it,” notwithstanding.)

Even when I had lost the lion’s share of my faith, I still believed that everything happened for a reason.  Having since regained the better part and more, I hold firm to the belief that the paths I have taken were not trodden in vain.  They have made me who I am today.

Last August, Anna, the kids and I took a trip to England with her parents.  I wanted to take photographs of the moors, and so I agreed to an evening walk with her mother and uncle, both of whom it turns out are rotten liars and sadists.  I love my mother-in-law beyond measure, but I learned a valuable lesson that evening: never trust an Englishman (or woman), who tells you that a walk is “quite pleasant” or “easy.”  This is the same woman, who once told Anna’s sister that the cure for disliking walking was more walking, which probably should’ve been my first clue.

The Brits have a word for what we did up and down the moors.  They called the steep climbs and rapid descents “scrambling.”  I call it attempted murder.  My heart has never beat as hard, nor have my legs ever felt as weak.  Yet the photographs that I was able to take, once we reached the top, were spectacular.  The irony of all ironies was that at the pinnacle of our “scramble,” there were no paths, only heather and ferns and potential.  The photograph below was taken on that hike.

Frost may have taken the road less traveled by, but we forged our own.  I reflected on the symbolism of this hike only afterwards when we were safely on the journey home.  I didn’t have the capacity (mental or lung) to contemplate it in the moment.

The above photograph was taken in Alaska, on a much more “pleasant” hike.  We were younger then, without kids, and without the concomitant cares.  I don’t know what I would’ve done differently had I known what lay ahead.  I don’t regret the paths that I’ve taken, because I am grateful and content where they have led me.  But I took the less traveled path, and that has made all the difference.

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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

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.

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.

Two Crows on Spanish Beach

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The sky was sepia and thick from the smoke from the highlands where fires raged, uncontrolled and hungry like it had so many times before.  Fire trucks lined the Pacific Coast Highway, which was closed south of Rocky Point.  Any hope of going to Big Sur and seeing the redwoods was dashed, and the new hope was that the fire was stopped before it reached them.

I walked on Spanish Beach with Kemper and Anna, among the seaweed and the granite outcroppings, where Kemper stacked stones in little cairns as if to say “I’ve been here, and I was industrious.”  He was first to spot the two crows babbling amongst themselves, perhaps about the fires, and perhaps about the little visitor approaching without caution.  They hopped from place to place, not quite flying though propelled by their charcoal wings, themselves dappled with ash.  They settled on a low stone, glancing at us with queerly knowing eyes, whose whole blackness belied the sentience behind them.

I told Kemper to slow, to admire the birds before he scared them to flight.  He stopped, perhaps as intrigued as they were.  I told him that they had been known to drop nuts on the street so that passing cars could crush them, only to swoop down and pick up the fresh meats from the cracked shells.

In his small universe, these two were the birds that I spoke of.  Not those crows in Japan that had learned this behavior.  But I understood then, that this beach, these rocks, these crows—these were his universe.  These crows were the only oddities that his four-year-old imagination could process at the time.  The sky was smoky in and of itself, like a chthonic deity.  There need be no fires, only smoke.  There need be no other crows, only these.

As we walked away, careful to keep a wide radius from the crows, they continued to look at us, their heads panning ever so slightly as we passed.  The crows will still be there, as they are in this photograph and in his mind, fixed in eternity, a memory of a distant beach on a foreign coast, until he sees the next pair of crows flitting about the shortleaf pines in his backyard, wondering how they made the journey but ever grateful that they made it for him.