You can add “change” to that old truism that death and taxes are the only certainties in this life.
I got an unexpected lesson in that just yesterday, when I attended the artist’s reception for an art show titled “CHANGE: A Photo Exhibition on the Impermanence of Life” at The Arts Mill in Grafton, Wisconsin. I was one of the artists featured, and it was a juried show, and so this was big deal for me on several levels. For one thing, that I got anything into the competitive show at all, much less two of my three submissions. And for another, that I was exhibiting anything, anywhere, at all.
2018 has been a “lost year” for me in many ways. Despite retiring from my job as a prosecuting attorney a few weeks ago with great fanfare to ostensibly focus more on writing and photography and things that are by nature creative and fun, I’ve spent virtually the entire year responding to an ongoing, grueling family medical emergency. Shit happens. Plans change. Writing fell to the wayside immediately. Photography fell by the wayside as well. Creativity and self-indulgence and any semblance of self-care fell by the wayside. What’s left of me can be very un-pretty on some days.
And yet, when I saw the call for art for the “CHANGE” show several months ago, I was intrigued and inspired. And finally I forced myself to set aside my other worries and sit at my computer long enough to pull some images from my archives and my memory and formally enter them in the art show competition.
Two of the three images were chosen by the judge for inclusion. One, “Impermanence,” is a photograph of shadows cast by a group of sightseers against a giant outcropping of rock on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I think I’m one of the shadows, in fact. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about their image. They look like a kinder, gentler version of the shadows left by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. Evidence of our being on this Earth looks quite starkly ephemeral when compared with the thousands of years that the rock has endured wind and weather, driving snow and scorching heat.
The other, “End of the Line,” features a gloriously colorful old passenger train car far past formal retirement, decaying into rust amid weeds and rails and other hulking ruins. As an object lesson in how shiny functional things still can’t beat the onslaught of time, it works pretty well.
And so I ordered prints of the photos and framed them and dropped them off at the gallery weeks before the show opened, and marked the date for the “artist reception” on my calendar. I don’t have much time or energy for a social life these days, but for this I’d make an exception!
It’s always delightful to go to an art show and see what inspires other folks, and talk with them about where their ideas come from. Synergy is a wonderful thing! But as I chatted about my own photos, I gave voice to just what “changes” these particular images marked for me in a very personal way. This was nothing that I had had in mind when I chose them to enter in the art show, and nothing that I was even vaguely pondering as I dropped them off.
But seeing them hanging on the gallery wall presented me with a view of “change” in my life that was profoundly deeper. I love photography for its ability to freeze the “instant.” An athlete’s moment of triumph or failure; the curl of a wave; a forest drenched in fog; a butterfly’s wing illuminated by a shaft of sunlight like stained glass. These two photographs, I realized, were not just instants to be preserved, but markers of some very long personal journeys.
I had taken the “Impermanence” photo twelve years before. At that moment in time, I was on a vacation out west with my older son, who had just turned nineteen and was leaving for college in just a few weeks. The dissolution of our nuclear family had been formalized less than a year before with the divorce. The “mom and me” trip was a ritual that I indulged in for all four of my children. This adventure was third in the lineup, but the first occurring since family contours had changed. We drove. We hiked up and down rocky trails. We watched the Perseid meteor shower from the rim of the canyon in the middle of the night. Another evening passed as we sat on rocks at the edge of the canyon, waiting for the sun to set, and talked about both the past and the future.
In the twelve years that have followed, he has grown from an incredible young man with a passion for justice to an amazing adult realizing his heart’s desires for making the world a better, kinder, richer place every day in his life’s work. In the twelve years that have followed, I’ve grown as well. I’ve adjusted to my once-full nest finally growing empty, experienced romance and heartbreak, found wells of resilience and reinvention that I could not have imagined. Neither of our paths to the present have been without stumbles or pain, but we are still standing, and still push forward, with our faces to the sun.
I took the “End of the Line” photo a few years later during a road trip I had taken with the man who shared my life for several years. Our formal destination was Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, which was the site of an annual “carriage horse” competition, replete with gorgeous period costumes and gleaming, fancy wagons. But before we got as far as the carriage horses and the grounds of the Victorian mansion that was hosting the show, we spied some decrepit railroad cars looking abandoned and derelict near an old grain elevator that was no longer in use. We couldn’t resist getting out of the car and looking around, both of us snapping away with our cameras.
The weekend itself was a happy snapshot, freezing lovely moments such as watching the sun set from a quiet boat dock on the Mississippi, in a relationship that experienced major ups and downs before it finally fell apart. When it began, I had never been so radiantly happy. When it crashed, well…no breakups exist that don’t leave scars. But I know that I have changed along the way, both by being with this man who introduced me to gardening, power tools, and the view from the back of his motorcycle, and then by learning to live without him. I’ve become…and had to become…stronger, more self-reliant, more accepting of my own flaws and strengths.
And so, without further fanfare or explanation…a salute to CHANGE! Because without it, we’re not remotely alive.