Sunday arrives and I remind myself, lugging a basket of laundry as dust mice scuttle ahead of me, Must post to blog. On Sundays I often grocery shop, do laundry, vacuum, go out for lunch with my husband, and try to sort out the coming week. Thinking of a pithy blog post is often at the bottom of my list. Thinking of anything period is often at the bottom of my list.
That’s why I sit myself down and do it. If I didn’t make myself think, yes, even on a weekend, even on Sunday, the day would be lost in dailyness. This week I thought I’d simply put up the above photo and announce that I’m a contributor to the new issue of Artful Blogging. Send up a flare, end of post.
Nope. Not letting myself off the hook that easily.
It’s true, my blog, a new essay, and my photos are featured in the Summer 2015 issue of Artful Blogging. If you don’t know this publication, it’s an feast of photographs and essays by bloggers who are artists, photographers, craftspeople, cooks, mothers, travelers, anyone who maintains a creative blog.
I’ve followed this magazine since its inaugural issue in 2008, before I began this blog. I drooled over the pictures, poured over the essays, spent time at the authors’ blogs. To say I’m gratified and flattered to be included is an understatement. My work is bookended by photographers who do not use point and shoot cameras set on auto!
By studying the magazine and other people’s blogs, I learned what makes an interesting photo and to include images that aren’t simply a visual “break” in my narrative. Several times I tried taking my photography to the next level. I bought books, enrolled in online and face-to-face classes, hung around with Donna Hopkins, a true photographer.
I ventured out into the world with my little Canon Powershot (and sometimes my Nikon), snapping pictures of old houses and cars and junkyards. National Geographic did not call. Good thing, because my camera is still on auto.
While my photos have gotten marginally better, the purpose of my blog has not changed. It’s the place where I think and work things out. I try to write shapely essays that anyone can relate to. The best part of blogging is that I can create a post, put it up, and be done. When you work on long-term projects, creating a blog post feels like a vacation.
My photography is stepping into my work-a-day writing. I take pictures for those long-term projects and not just for research. The camera has become another tool in my technique toolbox. From other people’s blogs (notably Donna’s), I’ve noticed photo collages. These artfully arranged objects can serve as a sketchbook of sorts.
Instead of just thinking about what my character likes or has, I arrange objects that represent my character and photograph them. As Donna told me, the very act of arranging—placing one object a half inch to the right and another a hair to the left—feels very zen. More importantly, arranging a composition gives me time to consider my character in a tangible sense.
Often when we create characters, we assign background information—color of hair, height, favorite flavor of ice cream, etc. Sometimes arbitrarily: my character loves blue and hates Brussels sprouts. Does she really? Or do we love the color blue and hate Brussels sprouts and transfer those likes and dislikes automatically?
By physically gathering things and then arranging them, the position of and space around the object holds weight. These are the items that matter to your character, in this particular way. I take the photograph of the collage and print it as part of my background notes. My character comes to life more organically.
I’ll continue to blog because I enjoy writing journal entries from my little corner of the world. And I’ll continue to take photos because it goes back into my work.
Yet for the next three months, I’ll be able to walk into a Barnes and Noble anywhere and pick up Artful Blogging. I might even tell the person standing next to me that not only is my work included in the magazine, but two of my photos are featured on the cover.
For the next three months, I’ll feel like Dorothea Lange.
Life is a child at play, moving pieces in a game; the kingdom belongs to the child. Heraclitus
Saturday. A beautiful day to drive to a library event. My GPS guided me to a highway I hadn’t been on in over 25 years, Rt. 28 between Manassas and Centreville. Good thing I had GPS because I was lost on a road I’d traveled thousands of times growing up.
Abandoned children’s games in the little side street, the street of Lost Steps, with the chalk lines of hopscotch in the late afternoon sunlight and shadow. Charles Simic
Dozens of traffic signals caused cars to crawl, even early on a Saturday morning. I gawked at a world I didn’t know. Check-cashing shacks, used car lots, ethnic restaurants, payday loans places, tattoo parlors, gun shops, auto parts stores, psychics, every inch plastered with tawdry sprawl.
Not that Rt. 28 had ever resembled Rodeo Drive, but blaring development made me grip the steering wheel as though I were hurtling through purgatory. Only Kline’s Tasty Freeze, an old-fashioned walk-up dairy bar in the same location 70 years, served as my personal global positioning system, my landmark anchor.
In antiquity the game of hopscotch symbolized the labyrinth in which one kicked a small flat white stone—one’s soul—toward the exit, the vanishing point with its cloudless sky. Charles Simic
As a kid, I traveled this stretch of road in all weather, every season, all times of day and night, in the backseat, the front seat, and, as a teenager, a few times in the driver’s seat. Yet in my mind, I’m nine years old in the backseat of our fin-tailed gray Chevy Biscayne. We wing toward Centreville on Lee Highway—the first view of the whale-shaped Blue Ridge Mountains—and turn left onto Rt. 28, heading to town.
It’s Friday evening in early summer, payday, and the road is the same purplish-blue as the mountains it runs parallel to. Small white houses are dwarfed by “snowball” and forsythia bushes. Forsythias, past their bloom, spray green fountains, but hydrangeas burst with rockets of blue and lavender. Telephone poles advance and retreat, unfurling scalloped wires like holiday bunting.
Alone in the backseat, I am queen. I own that throne of checked buttoned plush, rule both windows, possess the houses and mailboxes my coach passes like royal subjects. The road is familiar and comforting in its sameness, yet any second something new could swim into my vision. On the way to Manassas, I am watchful with anticipation. We bump over the Bull Run bridge into the next county. The river flows slow and brown between red clay banks. My stepfather mentions a good fishing hole he used as a boy.
On the way home, I’m drowsy with content, clutching a new Little Lulu comic book, chewing one chocolate-covered caramel Pom-Pom after another from the five-cent box. My mother and stepfather murmur in the front seat. Rt. 28 is darker. Telephone poles blur by, the hydrangea blossoms are bowed with dew. The distant mountains slumber.
Saturday when I crossed the county line, I never even glimpsed the Bull Run River. I didn’t see the mountains, only high-rises and vast shopping centers. A labyrinth of overpasses confused the turn onto Lee Highway.
The German variation of hopscotch is called Himmel und Holle (Heaven and Hell). The player throws the stone in the first square (Earth), then hops to each square after kicking the stone ahead, avoiding the square of Hell, trying to reach the last square, Heaven.
Stopped at one of the ill-timed red lights, I sat, a solitary soul, in my truck. So did the person in the car next to me. And the person in the car in front. We were all sitting on the same road at the same time. It occurred to me that no one else noticed the changes along that road, no one else was upset by them. It didn’t matter what was there before, only what was there now. Moreover, we were all active in creating those changes, simply by idling a few minutes in that spot.
Heraclitus said we can’t step into the same river twice. Every time I journeyed down Rt. 28 and back again, my presence altered the landscape. And the landscape altered me. The road was not the same, and neither was I. But what nine-year-old wants to think about change unless she initiates it?
Solitude, my mother/tell me my life again. O.V. de L. Milosz
Let me sweep aside the clutter of development. Let me be nine and queen of the backseat on my purplish-blue road. Let me tell my life again, the way I want to.
When I was 18, the man I was falling for took me to New York. We went one whirlwind day, driving five hours up and back in his new 1970 midnight blue Mercury Marquis convertible. Because I was going to be a writer, I was certain I belonged in New York. (I was also certain I belonged with this man, a huge mistake.)
I insisted we eat in the Writers and Artists restaurant at the gauche hour of 11:00 a.m. and was disappointed not to see one single writer or artist. Then: I was propositioned in Central Park and didn’t realize it, bought an over-priced original watercolor from a sidewalk artist, saw my first mime, and cried when a cafeteria server barked at me for not making up my mind fast enough. We drove out of the city with the top down. I gazed up at the star-lit skyscrapers, vowing I’d come back as a writer.
I did. More than ten years later, and with a different man, one who believed in me. I delivered a manuscript—my second published book—to my editor at Scholastic. My husband and I took the train, getting up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to the station. I wore jeans and a red “sheep” sweater (made popular by Princess Diana—rows of white sheep with one black sheep facing the other direction). A red Alice-in-Wonderland style ribbon held back my long hair. I was over 30 but looked 16. Still not ready for New York.
Ann Reit, my wonderful chic editor, took me to a restaurant where I had my first chocolate raspberry truffle. For the next few years, I hand-delivered my books, and came home with contracts. Ann showed me her city—her upper West Side neighborhood, Shakespeare & Co., the New School. New York meant the Metroliner (with dining service), lunch or dinner and show with my editor, the train back home.
Later I went to New York for conferences and conventions. The city meant Amtrak, Penn Station, hotels, Javits Convention Center, cocktail parties and receptions. I never went to a museum, never saw the Statue of Liberty, never did anything fun. I began to dread going to New York. So much so that years and years would go by between trips.
Two years ago, on a quick trip to attend the Children’s Choice gala, I visited the Strand bookstore and memorably walked the 30-some blocks to Penn Station with my luggage and bags of books. A year later I left a conference to see the “ABC of It” exhibit at the New York Public Library. There was another New York. In fact, there was a New York just for me. I only had to find it.
It began with a disappointing trip to D.C. this past November, when a friend and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Instead of feeling close to natural history, I felt distanced from it. Inside the charming Beaux Arts building the exhibits felt modern and skimpy. And inside of me, a book that featured natural history was trying to be born.
I would go to New York. I’d visit the Museum of Natural History and anything else the book required. I went this past week, alone, for four days, a trip not associated with a conference or a convention. I went for work. I went for myself. I was ready.
I got off the train, checked into my hotel, and hit the streets. I walked from 44th and 8th Avenue to 12th and Broadway, to the Strand bookstore. Along the way, I stopped at Books of Wonder. Real bookstores were my New York. I even visited the three-story Barnes and Nobles. It was freezing and raining, but bookstores kept me warm. I couldn’t walk five million blocks back—I’d rather lay down in the middle of Broadway and let taxis flatten me. So I learned the subway.
The next day I had an appointment at Random House—shades of visiting Scholastic. My editor took me to lunch at the Art and Design Museum. The elevator opened to a display of Pucci mannequins, naked and white, with people staring at them. I wished I’d captured that bizarre scene with my camera. At lunch I enjoyed a view of glass skyscrapers marching toward midtown. We shopped in the gift shop. I spent the rest of the afternoon on subways, thrillingly lost.
I don’t know why I thought I’d be alone at the Natural History Museum. Entire countries of tourists were bused in every day. Spring-break kids descended in swarms. Rather than wait with the crowd, I wandered around Central Park until the museum opened. Crocuses were pushing through leaf litter. I climbed rocks and dodged joggers on winding paths. This was my New York.
Inside the museum, a door opened inside me. It led straight to my ten-year-old self, the kid who loved all things nature. I wandered through galleries of dioramas (absent in the Smithsonian) I wanted to step in, past sweeping murals, dinosaur skeletons, gems, birds, amazement at every turn. I stayed until closing and missed half the exhibits. I went to be amazed and to learn. I went to find something I didn’t know I needed until I saw it.
The next day I had to go home, but I hoofed it to the Modern Museum of Art. I had one hour. I went looking for the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell. After I found those, I had thirty minutes. I passed up Rothko and Warhol for Monet’s staggeringly beautiful water lilies—entire walls of spring. People sat on the bench in front of one of the world’s greatest masterpieces, gazing at their phones. This was New York, too.
On the train home, winter landscape spooled outside my window—leafless trees, platinum-tinged rivers. Gradually the scenery greened until we reached Virginia where redbud and cherry blossoms, forsythia and daffodils welcomed me home again. I got off the train, tired but happy, with an extra suitcase, feet four sizes bigger, an empty wallet, and a head filled with astonishing images.
I had found my New York. I can’t wait to go back. And when I go, it won’t be in a 1970 midnight-blue Mercury Marquis, but coach-class Amtrak. I’ll be with the man who gave me the real New York and much more. And I’ll give him the Natural History Museum.