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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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

Daniel Ridge Falls

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Waterfalls pepper the landscape of Western North Carolina.  This particular one comments Daniel Ridge Falls, can be found in the Pisgah National Forest, about thirty minutes outside of Asheville.  It was a hot, dry summer, but I am told that in the early spring when the showers are abundant in the snow is melting, the falls are spectacular.  Despite the dryness, everything was green and alive.

Kemper was much younger then, and he made the hike in a pack on Anna’s back.  He has seen this photograph of the falls, but I doubt that he remembers them personally.  I, too, have memories of places that I’ve been through pictures, such as climbing on the rocks in Bar Harbor, Maine.  My grandparents used to spend months of the summer in a rented house on the coast (Down East), and when we visited them, I was, apparently, enamored with the rocks.

I am not sure what memories Kemper will have of the places we have taken him as a child.  Nevertheless, I have recorded everything and every place that we have ever taken.  Thus, he may have memories of places through the photographs that he would never otherwise have.  He has seen England, California, Maine, and others; the photographs themselves are memories, but for a child they are sometimes all that exists to trigger the memory of the place.

I have vague memories of scooting down the hill in Bar Harbor, but because there are no photographs, the memory is just a blurry snapshot.  I do, however, remember vividly (whether by first-hand knowledge or more likely through the photographs) climbing on and through the rocks on the coast, the smell of the bay, and even the way the barnacles and seaweed felt under my young feet.

Leaves of the Fall

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Beyond any other pursuits, photography included, I am a writer.

I went to Wake Forest on a creative writing scholarship, and even got a full ride to Dartmouth for the same.  (I chose Wake, because in high school I didn’t drink or ski, two prerequisites to attending Dartmouth, I was informed.  I am forever grateful I made that decision, though I do have flights of fancy every so often as to where I would have ended up had I chosen the Ivy League track…)

The first real writing endeavor I undertook was when I was seven and wrote a short story about a kid surviving in the wilds of North Carolina.  It was wholly implausible, but at 15 typed pages (for a seven year old), it was a veritable novella.  When I was sixteen, I began writing what would turn out to be my first novel.  I completed it at Wake, which is to say, I wrote the words “The End” when it seemed appropriate; however, in my mind it remains unfinished and unpublishable in its current form.  Every so often I get a wild hair and re-write sections of it.  Some day, I will dedicate myself to rewriting it, and perhaps I will even submit it for publication.  It’s working title was “The Last of the Romantics,” though this gave way at some point in college to “The Leaves of the Fall,” which is what it remains to this day.  I love that title, and the symbolism that is packed into those five words.

I have gone through phases of dedicating myself to the craft of poetry, and then to drama, and then back to poetry, and then plays about writing poetry, but I always land back at the novel – that unfinished magnum opus that may never be.  I have written a couple of others in the interim, and a number of short stories – some of which I am more proud of than others – but none that I am so proud of as to submit them for any competition or publication.

In the end, I have always written for myself.  It was a release when I most needed it, and like my earlier post on melancholy, this desperation was a bountiful muse.  Now that I am in a happier, softer place, I do not need writing as I once did.  The craft will always draw me.  We are different poles of the same magnet, pulled together at all times, but somehow never quite managing to forever join together and fulfill our attraction to one another.  In some ways it is like a subtle addiction.  I can kick it from time to time, but when I let myself, I relapse into the world where I am consumed by writing.  These little daily epistles satiate me, for now, but they are like methadone to a heroin addict.  Although they replace the visceral need, they are a poor substitute for the real thing, the thing that I crave even when I am not actively thinking about it.

I generally do not stage my photographs.  I take them as they come, as they are presented to me.  In this way, my photographs are documentaries of how I encountered the world, rather than fictional accounts of how perfect I wanted the world to be.  In this case, I gave into my addiction, in part, and posed this water oak leaf on a stone staircase on the property up in North Carolina.  I wanted a shot that corresponded with the title of the novel.  I wanted cover art for a book that may never be bound.  Perhaps this is wishful thinking, or perhaps it is a subconscious recognition that some things I just cannot escape.

Unlike alcohol or any other addiction, I can be consumed with it without being consumed by it.  I am still whole the end of a poem or a chapter, perhaps even more so, having gained a bit more insight into my psyche.  I can live with that.

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Winter Willows

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I leave today, I’m packing light: a suitcase, some toiletries
The rolling hills and willow trees of Carolina wait for me

-Benjamin Gibbard, Carolina

When I set foot on Wake Forest’s campus, I knew it was home.  It is often difficult for me to recall the details of every important life moment, especially if I didn’t put much stock in the moment at the time.  Yet I remember pulling off of Silas Creek Parkway, and seeing the hedges at the entrance to Wake’s campus like it was yesterday.  It was the Fall, and the leaves had already begun to fall as my dad and I pulled through the gate and onto the main road into the campus.

Carolina is still home in many ways.  It is home insofar as I have deep, sometimes painful nostalgia for it.  Nostalgia comes from the Greek meaning an aching for home.  I ache to be back in the foothills, to be back when the leaves turn and fall.  For a long time, I ached to be back at college, but now that I am in a job I enjoy, in a place I love, I do not covet the thought of being back in the dorms and going to class every morning.  Too much has happened in the interim, and I am not the person I was when I was eighteen and stepped foot onto the campus.

Having said that, in many ways, I am more that eighteen-year-old now at thirty-four than I was at twenty-two when I left, or even thirty, when I hit the reset button and chose to fundamentally change who I had become.  To all who met me, I was a happy, laid-back person, who had the capacity to find the joy in the littlest things in life.  I was more this person than perhaps I gave myself credit for being, though at the time, I considered it quite the facade.  Today, I am returning to (or perhaps becoming for the first time) the person I so desperately wanted to be when I was at Wake.  As they say, selfishness and self-seeking have slipped away; I have a new outlook on life.  I comprehend serenity, and I know peace.  For me, North Carolina embodies these promises, and so, one day I will pack my back, to where the rolling hills and willow trees of Carolina wait for me.

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On Melancholy

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I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.
-Baudelaire
I stumbled on an article yesterday, entitled “The Benefits of a Blue Period.”  In short, the article posited that periods of melancholy in our lives allow us to more greatly appreciate periods of happiness.  I read the article with great curiosity and enthusiasm, as I wholeheartedly agreed with the hypothesis.  One of my favorite professors at Wake Forest, Eric Wilson, wrote a book to this end entitled Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.  It is a brilliant little book, and I have read my copy multiple times.
Professor Wilson taught me to love Blake, and Wordsworth, and Shelley, and especially Keats, who wrote a beautiful poem entitled Ode on Melancholy, where he observed that pleasure and melancholy are two sides of the same coin (Keats’ metaphors are, of course, far more elegant); one cannot fully appreciate the prior without having first experienced the latter.  A rose is beautiful because it must die, because it is, at its core, ephemeral, as life itself is.
I took this photograph of my son, Kemper, earlier this year at Big Talbot Island State Park, just north of Jacksonville, Florida.  It is not the most elegant composition, but it evoked the memory of sitting in Professor Wilson’s class, engrossed as he discussed the wild Blake, and the addled Shelley, and the elder statesman, Wordsworth.  In 2007, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home, and I personally bore witness to the Lake District’s daffodils he was so fond of as I wandered lonely as a cloud.  I would soon thereafter realize, however, that I had not yet experienced true loneliness and solitude.
I have found myself in the depths of melancholy, with a singleness of isolation and anguish.  I was no better (or worse) than Coleridge, whose consumption of laudanum sustained his melancholic madness (that brought us Kubla Khan) until his death at 61.  I often thought I would end up like Coleridge, though with the ignominious distinction of anonymity to all but those who loved me.  Yet I persisted with my own course of self-medication until I was thirty.
I cannot say that I, with a fit of passion and self-realization, quickly emerged from the chasm of melancholy where I had made my home for nearly a decade.  My ascent was gradual, albeit progressive.  At some point along the way, I cannot say when, I gained the perspective of the Romantics – I did not regret the melancholy of my twenties, nor did I wish to shut the door on it.  I had been humanized and humbled by the darkness; because of it, the light shone that much brighter.  I am indebted to Professor Wilson for planting the seed, which, though it lay fallow for years, eventually grew of solid stock.
A rose plucked from a garden is beautiful because it must die, as all beautiful things must, one day, come to an end.  A silk rose in a glass vase is a pale imitation because it possesses no vitality, it is a mere imitation.  I recognize that I am an imitation – not a mimic, but a feigned likeness of a whole human held out to the world – a world, which chooses, most often, to accept me for what I seem rather than peering behind the curtain to who I truly am.
Before I get to afar afield, let me bring us back to melancholy and to a close.  As I am grateful to Professor Wilson, I am grateful for my melancholic past, and, yes, even for the fits of melancholy that I will continue to experience throughout my life.  Emerging from the darkness, the light is all the more vivid.
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Kemp & Brynn

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My sister and I were close as kids.  We lived across the river (literally) from our school friends, and we were often the only playmates the other had.  Nevertheless, I knew which buttons to push to get a rise from her, and I was like a churlish child on an elevator for the first time pressing all of them at once, at times, just to see them light up.  To my memory, she only paid me back once, when I was six or seven and learning to rollerblade.  I fell, and she tried to help me up with her foot…on my back…twice…  If this is the worst that I can remember, then I suppose we had a pretty good relationship.

Since we had kids (Claire’s daughter, Brynn on the left, and my son, Kemper on the right), however, we have grown much closer.  It may be the newfound maturity on both our parts, but I would like to think that we are just in a better place to be even closer than we were growing up.  She is a single parent, and a damn fine one.  My dad and I have both taken on the male figure in Brynn’s life, and in many ways I think that this has made me grow up even faster than just having two kids of my own.

I love seeing Kemp, Brynn, and now my daughter Nora, all playing together.  Kemp is gentle and kind with both girls, and very protective.  Brynn mothers Nora, and Nora adores them both.  We had the chance to spend a good chunk of time together in North Carolina over the New Year, and it is the best family vacation that I can remember.  Everyone was on their best behavior – even me – and the kids played constantly together.  This photograph was taken on a short hike on the property to an amphitheatre that was built for the boys’ camp that existed on the property in its earlier life.

Although I was trying to get Kemp and Brynn to pose for a shot, this one is candid.  It perfectly captures Brynn’s childish pleasure at being with the whole family (especially Kemper), and Kemper’s sly amusement at the world itself.  I love this shot, and I smile every time it comes up on my photo album that I have playing in my office at all times.  Claire and I were close, but I know that we want our kids to be even closer.  I think that is, ultimately, what we worked towards growing up without even knowing it.

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