This may sound crazy, but lately I feel like I've been getting messages from Some Great Beyond. I'm not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but things have been happening lately. I feel like I'm being fed pieces of a story a little bit at a time. I have no idea how the story is going to progress, how the characters will evolve, or what the ending will be. All I know is that there is a story, and I'm a part of it. A big part of it, as it turns out.
A couple of weeks ago, my department manager's husband committed suicide. This greatly shook up everyone in my department, me included. I couldn't help but feel that his act was a message for me. A message that read: "Don't ever let yourself get this unhappy. Do something. Do it now!"
I should rephrase that. I am not so self-centered that I think that his suicide was a message especially for me. But it came at such a relevant time that I perceived it to be something to which I really should pay close attention.
You see, I've been going through a lot lately. It seems like the whole world has been on this emotional rollercoaster with me. Everywhere I look, it seems that there are people having similar struggles. I read it on their blogs and see it in their eyes. Unhappiness weighs heavily in the words and on the faces of others. More often than not, it seems we are a tired, sad, defeated people (or maybe it's just me). Perhaps this time of great economic uncertainty has seeped into our consciousness in a way that we can't even begin to explain. I'm not really sure. All I know is that life sucks sometimes. It really, really does.
You know something's really amiss when a person holds a loaded gun to his head and willingly fires it. And it's not like this was an isolated incident. This is the third case of suicide affecting someone in my daily life in the last month.
Life sucks, indeed.
Believe it or not, my current level of unhappiness (which can change dramatically from day to day, by the way) is not based primarily on this, but on my job. I've had this job for two years now. I'm grateful for it. I have a stable (but low) income and decent medical benefits, and my boss is very supportive of my scheduling needs. I have some good experience on my resume. I've met some great people. There are definitely worse places to be.
And yet, I am not happy. From day one, I have known that this job wasn't a great fit for me. For starters, I work in a legal office, and I just don't have the intuition for and appreciation of the law. I'm a paper pusher with really nothing to do most days. For some people this might be a good thing, but not me. I'm a hard worker, and I'm really educated. I'm also pretty darn smart and motivated. I have worked hard at doing nothing for two years now, and if it wasn't for school, I think I'd be an idiot at this point. And believe me, I've made plenty of effort at improving things, but so far nothing has worked. It's really worn me down. Some days I am downright angry about it, and some days I'm just numb. But not every day is a bad one. It's not like I spend every second of my time thinking about how much I hate it. It's more like having this subtle little cloud following me around. Other things in my life are bright and shiny, but sometimes the work cloud really affects my worldview.
All that said, within the past few months, things have gone really downhill. I think I have had at least one work-related meltdown a week this summer. Things have gotten to the point where I probably fall into the category of "depressed person." On these days, I can't help but feel like a failure. After all, I am living the life that I never wanted to live: I wake up, go to work, spend eight hours in a box, go home, rinse, and repeat. But more often, I feel scared. I am scared that I will never have the courage to devote myself to my life's work and that I will die a would-have-been.
This fear of mine, the fear of not ever fully realizing my potential, ranks right up there with my fear of losing someone I love deeply. In a sense, if I never forge a life for myself based on the things I feel passionately about, then I will be losing someone who is very important to me: myself.
At the age of three, I would sit and watch my brother work on his cursive writing skills, and I learned how to write my name in a wobbly script. I like to think that it was then that I began my love affair with writing. I will say that if I didn't realize it at three years old, I knew a few short years later what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer, an author, a sculptor of words, a creator of worlds through the power of the pen.
Knowing what you want to do with your life is like knowing you're in love. You just know. It's nothing that can be explained; it's an abstract feeling with a life of its own, and if you're lucky, it takes the form of something you can see, touch, experience. It becomes something larger than yourself. It's often beautiful, but making it work can be so hard, so draining.
I have been working at writing my whole life. I have filled up probably a hundred journals, written thousands of emails/letters and poems, started hundreds of stories (and written two novels). I have read so many books and blogs and magazines that unless they're really exceptional (or written by my friends), I can't keep them straight anymore. I stare at paintings and photographs and other art objects, and I absorb them. I take an honest look at my life, and then I begin to take it apart and see what it's made of.
I am a writer. Whether or not I am a good writer is irrelevant. I write; this is what I do.
You noticed the certainty with which I delivered that last little bit, yes? It's true: as wishy-washy as I am, that is one thing I do know. But knowing it hasn't made my life any easier. There are still bills to pay, after all.
Truthfully, I'm stubborn. I never wanted to settle for any kind of writing career. I wanted to write stories or novels, and as I got older, my focus fell on poetry. These are not genres that sell, unless you are Stephen King or Danielle Steel or a greeting card poet. But I am not them. I don't know how to create anything that sells. All I know how to create is what I see in front of me. Sometimes I can imagine what exists beyond the frame of my experience and form some impression of that. Oftentimes, the things that I find the most beautiful and meaningful don't seem to be well received by the public. I am okay with that. But there are still bills to pay, after all.
Enter my beloved Canon Rebel, my very first "good" camera.
Long before I laid my greedy little hands on that beauty, my mom bought me my first camera. It was a white Kodak (film, of course). I was eleven years old, and we were on vacation in Colorado. My best photo-related memory of that time we spent in Colorado was buying film that was meant for action shots. So every time one of us took a picture with the camera, the subject would move around like crazy. This resulted in some really hilarious pictures that I will forever treasure. Since that vacation, I have always owned a camera. I have taken great care to document my life through pictures.
We were in New Mexico later that summer, and I snapped a picture of the most beautiful sunset I'd ever seen. To my great disappointment, the picture didn't turn out. (I wish I had known then what I know now!) It was a memory, lost. If I close my eyes, I can vaguely see that New Mexico sunset, but there's nothing to confirm that it was real.
And to me, that's what photography is about: capturing the real, freezing the moment, preserving the memory. The more artfully you can do that, the better. I didn't realize that this was something I really wanted to do until I opened my Canon Rebel on Christmas morning this past year.
I immediately started taking pictures. Of everything. My most noteworthy pictures on that first day were of oranges and a leaf floating in the swimming pool at Roy's grandparents' house. A new love affair had begun: with objects and the quiet lives they lead.
If you've never been a member of the knot or the nest, then you won't understand how cliche it is for a member of those boards to venture out into something like photography or wedding planning after getting married. (It does seem like the cool thing to do, but let's face it - only a very select few can do it well. That's a subject for another post, though.) My own wedding photographer was a knottie-turned-vendor, and for awhile I tried to see myself following in her footsteps. I even turned to her for her thoughts on my photographic awakening, and she gave me some good advice: to pursue my passion and to think outside the box to make it into something. That was in January or February, and I have been thinking ever since.
In the meantime, I've been trying on different roles. I've taken photos of couples, babies, kids, animals, weddings, etc. I have attended a workshop, read books and blogs on the subject, learned how to edit, etc. I even have a name picked out should I ever start my own business. I have a few portrait sessions lined up, and I'm excited about them.
But you know what? There's something missing. Doing portrait sessions is enjoyable, yes. But my heart doesn't feel like it's going to explode with happiness when I'm doing them. I want that feeling. I want to devote my life to something that makes me feel that way.
Roy and I watched Autism: The Musical last week. It's a documentary about the Miracle Project, an organization that works with kids with special needs. It's a pretty amazing film, and you should watch it if you have the chance. It is the coolest thing to see these autistic kids get up in front of a crowd of people and be able to sing and perform, and while watching it, I laughed and cried, sometimes in the same breath. None of those kids could have gotten to that point without their own Coach E, who taught them to push the boundaries of their minds and sing their broken, beautiful hearts out.
I want to be Coach E. I want to give a voice to the voiceless.
There are so many wedding and portrait photography businesses out there, and I subscribe to quite a few of their blogs. I started doing this for research purposes, because for awhile there, as stated before, I was seriously thinking of taking on the wedding photographer role. It seemed to make sense at the time. After all, I had a camera and a decent sense of what makes a picture look good (but don't get me wrong - I am far from knowing all there is to know and from being really good at photography), and I'm sure there are people out there who would pay for my services. And we all know that if you want to make money being a photographer, then wedding photography is the way to go.
It also was the safest and easiest choice. The bridal industry is pretty easy to break into, relatively speaking. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be the enormous amount of bad wedding photographers currently working!
What I have finally realized, though, is that I really lack the passion and drive to be a good wedding photographer. It's a hard job that you have to really want to do. While I respect the hard work that wedding photographers put into their job, I'm not willing to do it because it's just not my thing. I understand that this is one of the most important days of a couple's life, and I don't think I would respond well to that amount of pressure. Plus, I would probably get distracted by a brick wall and miss the ceremony.
And then there's this other thing about wedding and portrait photography. It's a production. It's being set up to unfold in a certain way. The stars of the wedding are wearing costumes and are made to look more beautiful than they usually are. The pictures are taken so as not to appear posed, but they are not as candid as they seem. I don't mean to sound harsh or overcritical or to downplay the emotions experienced during a wedding or a portrait session. The emotions are real, that's for sure. And a gifted photographer will capture them well, creating something concrete for the couple or family to hold onto for the rest of their lives. They will look at those pictures and see themselves at their most beautiful, when they were young and happy and in love.
But what I want to know is this: what happens when the beauty fades? What happens when times get hard and things look bleak? What happens when death comes calling? Who is going to be there to capture those moments?
I want to introduce you to some important bodies of work by some extraordinarily talented photographers. These collections of photographs are not easy to look at; as a matter of fact, they make my heart hurt. They usually make me cry.
I have never been one to shy away from sadness, though, so here goes:
Mashed Potatoes for Breakfast
Days with My Father
Life Before Death
Depressing? Yes. A complete and total downer? Yes.
But necessary? Absolutely.
Without these photos, we would never have the pleasure of knowing these people. And this is important work, just as important as shooting a wedding.
In our wanderings around our town, Roy and I have come across quite a few homeless people. I am admittedly fascinated by them. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they seemed to be non-existent in my hometown, and so I didn't grow up taking it for granted that there would be a homeless person with a sign asking for help at every freeway off-ramp.
But they are everywhere. Every-fucking-where. When I pull up to a stoplight and see a homeless person holding a sign on the corner, I take care to avoid their eyes. I don't know why I do this. It's not that I'm afraid (although I kind of am) or put off by them. It's that I just don't understand what led them to that point of desperation. Who are these people, and how did they get to where they are now?
The other day I was at a stoplight, and again, there was the token homeless person with a sign asking for help. At first I wouldn't even look at him. But then for some reason, I rolled down my window and held out a dollar. The guy began walking towards me, limping like crazy. He had this huge, happy grin on his face. He thanked me profusely. I began to wonder why I had been avoiding eye contact with him in the first place. Is it because I see in him the very thin, very fragile thread that binds us yet separates us at the same time?
We're not so different, you know. We're all just a little lost. We're all just looking for something.
I want to help these lost people, to reach out to them, to show them a better life. I want to document life as it is for them. And I want to portray life as it is for the rest of the world's lost souls: from the stay-at-home mom who hasn't had time to brush her hair to the businessman eating alone at lunch time to the kid who got picked last for dodge ball.
There's more to life than the happiest moment. There are all the moments that follow, that precede, that come in between. And I am a big fan of the everyday. Just as I love dilapidated buildings and silent objects, I love wrinkled faces and heartbroken eyes.
Everyone has a story. And I want to tell it.
So, you see, I've been taking in all this stuff for quite awhile now. All these disjointed pieces are forming this vague picture in my mind. It's a lot like planning a wedding or writing a paper. You start with a bone. Then you build a skeleton. You add in the organs, nerves, muscles, blood. You craft many layers of skin and sew them together, and then you have something flawed, rough, and beautiful.
That's what I'm doing. I'm building something organic. I have this mound of Play-Doh in my hands that's made up of words, photos, smiles, tears, chocolate, and flowers, and someday I will understand what it all means and what I'm supposed to do with it. I will understand what my life's work really is.
In a way, I already understand.
It's the fear of loss, more than anything, that motivates me. Long before I had fears of losing myself and my dreams, there was someone else that I lost. You know how people always talk about the one that got away? For me, that was my dad. (You can read about him here.)
My entire life is a reaction to what happened to him. It's the reason why I'm so hard on myself, why I expect so much of myself, why I am so scared to be left behind, and why I am so sensitive to those who are less fortunate. It's why I embrace the sadness in life as something beautiful, why I always am upfront with my feelings, and why I am so quick to admit when I'm wrong. I can't think of a single issue I have that doesn't have something to do with him and the effect it had on our family.
This isn't necessarily a negative thing. I think I have managed to make the best of a devastating situation, and I have had a lot of help, especially from my mom and brother. (Oh, and therapy! Let's not forget the amazing things that therapy has done for me.)
The point is, my dad never stood a chance against the massive AVM in his brain. It was out of his control. The way he is now is largely out of his control as well. I am in a position to fulfill my purpose in life and to live up to my potential, and he is not. I feel it is my duty to always do my best, to do more than my best - because he can't. This is why I think so damn much about this stuff - because even though he may never notice or pay attention to me or the things I do, I want to be a person of whom he would be proud.
To be less than that is not enough.
And this, my friends, is why I dream. It's why I write, why I take pictures, why I try to soak up the things that make up the world. It's not all for me. It's also for him. And it's for all those others who can't as well.
And here I am, back at the beginning again. I've come full circle - from adulthood to childhood and back again. Life is funny that way. You never know where it's going to take you.
All I really know is that this has been a glorious ride so far, full of the terror and giddiness of the unknown. And despite some of the choices I've made and the heartbreak I've experienced, I really wouldn't change a thing.
As I said in the beginning of this blog entry, I am not a religious person. I don't necessarily believe in fate or absolute truth or that all things happen for a reason. While I often contemplate the universe and our origins and endings, I ultimately don't care where I came from or where I'm going when I die. What matters most is what I do with my time as Leslie.
I think someday I will do something great, whether it's giving birth to a baby who grows up to be a lovely human being, writing an awesome collection of poetry, or documenting the life of a decrepit old house or an ordinary person for the world to always remember. Or maybe, just by facing another day, I have already done something great. There's something heroic in continuing to push on, right?
Yes, I think so. And so, I go on. Pen and paper in hand, camera around my neck, with that ache of love and longing inside, I go on.