Lagan

They fell, down a mountain —
or was it a crevasse, a ravine?
Were they buried beneath the frozen white,
or when those hills were green?

My father falls after them, still, and slowly
I could not stay behind to watch
as it ate away at the both of us;
now he’s gone too far away to touch.

My desires, my wishes reach out to me now;
they’ll grasp my ankles, if I let them
My dreams of late are filled with waves —
from the deep, I hear their darkness beckon.

The sand is hot, birds wheel in the sky
while that old water calls out to me:
“Remember how I held you so many times…
remember how well you loved me?”

As a girl, my mother called me her little fish
and I wished for the scales of a mermaid
Forgetting that, were I ever to meet one
only death could follow her serenade.

So I fell last, not where or how I believed
could ever creep in and surprise
And now, at last, she beckons me, and I
am lost, falling through his warm eyes.

Just as before, the water is fierce
deep and strong and dark…
Below is ahead of me, above is behind
as her waves swallow my last little spark.

As a girl, I read of little Hattie
and the ocean she watched all her days
Now I wait, too, with these hopes like rocks
weighing me down, though he never stays.

 


 

Image © Barbara Cooney, 1990. I still own my old, well-loved copy of Hattie.

(And still, I am no poet. Apologies; I couldn’t sleep.)

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Some of us will always stay behind

This has been a strange year, and as it drags on with so little being accomplished, I feel more and more things slipping away from me. Living with anxiety as I do makes feelings like these into a very cruel sort of game (and a very difficult one to express): which ones are real, and which ones are all in your head? You can never quite answer correctly, either, because you will worry either way. It will either be justified worry, or it won’t, but either way, it still steals my energy, my hope, my time, and leaves me feeling sore and defeated.

Some of these things, I know, are real. Neither of my parents’ lives have any stability left in them, even as they near the age when you are supposed to retire. In reality, I have no idea what will happen to either of them, nor do they. My father ignores this, and my mother just accepts it. I do envy her ability to cede all illusion of control, but perhaps that’s something that can only come with age, and too many years of life disappointing you. My roommate seems to enjoy regularly reminding me that there is no stability in mine, either, in all sorts of thoughtless ways. Projects, relationships, hopes, all seem to be falling away from me, on all sides. My mind used to dare to give me the occasional hopeful dream, but these days I just have regular, obvious, exhausting nightmares about falling off bridges or buildings or through floors, getting swallowed up by tangles of dark things I cannot see. I have gotten much better at managing my anxiety this year, it’s true, and that is a hard-fought victory. But at my core, I remain the same difficult person I’ve always been, the one who does not fit anywhere. If she says otherwise, she is a liar.

This may be a darker part of the reason why my experience with drowning never scared me much. Apart from the lack of pain, and the fact that both my breathing and my flawed little heart stopped within just a few minutes — this is an easier fate for your body to accept than you might expect, at least when you’re enveloped by something as powerful and ambivalent as the ocean — it felt somehow appropriate to me, even then. It’s not a particularly violent death, and if one were allowed to choose what eventually removes them from life someday, I’d opt to just lose to the ocean again. (There are certainly far worse ways to go, and I know too much about most of them.) I have a lot of dreams about that day lately, too. The familiar, inevitable feeling of the endless water surrounding me at all sides until I could no longer struggle or see — like everything else in life, like my mother, I fought it until I had nothing left with which to fight — until I simply slipped away.

Always held close in your fear

After several months of sitting on it, taking forever to finish it off (and only 36 exposures! amazing what the cost of printing will cause you to be stingy about), I finally had a film roll developed at my nearby lab. I had not shot a roll in nearly a year, and before then, not in about a decade. I had never shot in black and white at all, before the winter before last.

I was far more encouraged by the results of this set than the one from last year. Perhaps last year’s pieces were tied too closely to emotions that were difficult to process, tied up in too much pain. I’m not sorry I took them — I’ve taken millions of photographs in my life, having picked up my first camera over 25 years ago — I will never be sorry to have taken a photograph. But the keep ratio on that roll was embarrassingly low, and I had set too high a bar to challenge myself with, after so long away from the unforgiving, changeable, wonderfully unpredictable nature of film. I shot nearly an entire roll late at night, wandering alone out on the streets of the city, with an old, persnickety steel tripod and a handheld shutter release shaking in my hands in the coldest weeks of winter, losing the feeling in my fingers, wishing I still owned a pocket watch to properly time the seconds of my long exposures. The camera body itself is 10 years older than I am, and made of steel, too. Its heft is reassuring and dependable, but must be adjusted to. I stumbled a lot, on that roll.

This second batch is certainly not without its errors, and not just because I’m not the only one to use it — a couple of friends picked it up, at my urging, for a few shots. I ended up, somehow (too many months have passed to be sure how), with a few double-exposures, one is entirely underexposed — so much so it took me a few minutes to decipher where I had taken and what it had been of. A few are not a good mix of aperture and shutter speed, and came out sadly flat as a result — black & white film is completely unforgiving to a failure in getting those elements talking to one another smoothly, and will wash most all detail away in mid-range grays as punishment.

And yet… the ones that do work, this time, outnumber those that do not. And the ones that work rather stunned me. It has been such a long time since I felt so moved by any of my own work. I am reminded how much more deeply film carries a feeling of place and memory for me, in a way that digital never has. It’s not that digital photographs I’ve taken (which still greatly outnumber those I’ve shot on film, sadly) hold no meaning or value to me; quite the contrary. But no digital photograph has ever given me the feeling of sudden and deep transport back to a place I once was and exposed a frame to light in the way that photos like these do. And the places (the poppy fields, Hollyhock House) and things I most hoped to capture — to freeze in time, as Susan Sontag once described us photographers as constantly, vainly fighting to do — were right there before my eyes, almost as if I had been transported directly back into those very moments again. I’ll even admit to audibly gasping at one or two, they exceeded my expectations so completely. The warmth and texture, the true depth of space, the contrast and purely imprinted light… I have scrolled through the lot of them several times already, and with a sense of deep contentment with my work I have not felt in perhaps many years. This is how you want a photograph to make you feel, but it’s been long enough since I last achieved this, I had forgotten what a powerful feeling it can be. I’m sure some will be posted here, or elsewhere, soon. I can feel proud to place my name under them. I also can see better what my margin of error will be with this particular film I’ll have to work within for a series I’ve been planning to shoot for years, and will begin work on soon. But looking through these, I can also see — within those limits — what I am capable of capturing, within those limits, and it is encouraging.

One photograph in particular — and it is not even one of the technically “successful” ones; it is underexposed and not fully in focus, though I knew the moment I took it I would be lucky if anything in it would come out discernible at all — captures a treasured memory, a very precious moment in time. I surprised myself, at the time, in even daring to take it. And it is fairly dark, and somewhat blurred, but… it is there. My happiness in that moment, my peace and contentment, are right there within it, alive still.

Seeing any sort of hope realized, for once, even a relatively small one, feels so rare to me, or possibly it just seems that way of late. Looking at it reminds me how I still long for another moment like it, but seeing it preserved better than I dared hope I might be able to makes that feel not quite so impossible now, somehow. I did not know even a slice of my own face could look as beautiful as it does there, and that is a hopeful thing to see, too.