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

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.

Mirrored

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My wife was under the weather for the past few days, and I took off work on Thursday and Friday to take care of her and the kids.  I cannot describe the satisfaction (and often joy) that I had being the caretaker for a change.  I take care of the family in a panoply of ways, first and foremost making a living at my job, but I lend a hand when I get home, cooking and cleaning and putting the minion to bed; but there was something so satisfying about being the caregiver over the last four days.

I took Nora to her infant swimming lessons, which were hard to watch, and I played with her for most of the day until I picked Kemp up from school.  We played, we laughed, and being a clumsy little thing, she cried every so often when she took a particularly magnificent stumble.  (Note: The only bump she received this weekend was when Anna was watching her, and so I feel pretty good about that.)

All in all, I kept my family fed, clothed, and where they needed to be.  Kemper hit the ball on his first try at t-ball (thought he swung before he was supposed to, and I missed the video), and he seems to be enjoying it.  (If he could remember which hand his glove goes on, he could be an all star…)

This photograph was taken in Panthertown Creek, just outside of Cashiers, North Carolina, close to Brevard.  I gave Kemper my old digital camera, and he thoroughly enjoyed snapping pictures of leaves and sticks and other miscellany.  He especially enjoyed taking pictures of other people, including this one, in which he took a picture of me taking a picture of him.  Something about this photograph struck at my heartstrings, and it is even the background to my phone now.

I work very hard, long hours (I am posting this at 3:15 AM), but it is all worth it when I come home and Nora comes running up to me, arms wide open, and screaming “Dada, up please.”  When she buries her face in my neck, or gives me an unsolicited kiss, my heart melts, and I know that outside of its meaning to the clients, my work has meaning to my family.  Although I am not there as much as I would like, I provide, and I am there as much as I can be.  I was sad to see Anna at less than 100%, but I appreciated the opportunity to pick up the slack and play the role of both parents as Anna often does.  I am so fortunate to have the life I do, and these four days were a welcome reminder of that life.

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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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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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Walking On

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I was initially not pleased with how this photograph turned out.  The figures of my mom and Kemper are sharp, but the trees and leaves in the foreground are blurred, as I was fiddling with my settings to take earlier photographs with my wide angle lens and, candidly, I forgot to change them.  When I came back to it after a bit of contemplation, however, it grew on me.  The focus of this photograph is and should be my family, and the other blurred features, which seemed like a distraction at first, repose in a secondary position.

This is, I think, a good lesson learned once again from a photograph that has taken on a life of its own.  Family is, and should be, the focus.

I keep long hours in my job.  When I started, I would get in around 5:30 and leave after 7:00 in the evening.  I saw Nora and Kemper very little during the week, and it took a toll on me.  Nora was young enough that she changed daily, and getting home after she went to sleep meant that she had changed drastically in a week.  Kemper changed, too, but not as quickly.  Still, I missed being able to see them each day.

These days, I get into the office around 4:30 and leave around 5:30 or 6:00, and rarely do I miss either of them before they have to go to bed.  Nora runs to me now (or at least toddles quickly) and throws up her arms when she sees me.  I pick her up and she tells me about her day in her own language that she can only assume I understand.  I hesitate to put her down, even to give Kemp a hug, because this is our time.  When Anna feeds her and puts her to bed, Kemper and I have our time.  We have taken to lying in his bed and talking about both of our days, if for no other reason than to share that my days have their challenges as well.  He cherishes these “long talks.”  I do too.

My days are long, and I am worn out by the end.  I shoulder a lot of responsibilities in the hours that I am in the office, but as this picture attests, family is my focus – even if sometimes I lose sight of this for the blur that is the rest of my life.  Indeed, even when I forget to change the settings, the important things remain tack sharp.

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