[An important note: I am aware of how grave are the days among us. I know there are hundreds of thousands of people in the world who have been infected by the COVID-19 virus and that thousands have died. I know that all the rest of us stand in fear and worry. I am also aware of my own privilege and safety in this moment. Yet at the risk of seeming tone deaf, I just can’t dedicate every blog post to talking about COVID-19 and its consequences. For me, there is value and meaning in reflecting on other things as well. So that is what I will do. I hope that my written thoughts, insights, and feelings will give others comfort, hope, and challenge. Of course, I will still write about what we are facing in this moment. But for now, I am not sure that it is helpful for me to be swallowed up by this pandemic as the only reality in our universe. Please forgive me and help me find a better direction if what I write causes any harm or painfully ignores all that we are going through together.]
The past few days I have been reviewing old slides. You know—Kodachrome, Agfachrome, and the like. Many of these slides are from the days when I first fell in love with photography and SLR cameras. Some of them come from my early family life with Lena, but hundreds come from my time as a student in Iran in 1973 and as a teacher of English in Egypt in 1976. We are reviewing old photos and getting rid of ones that we no longer care about and that we know our children won’t really want to shuffle though and keep. The rest of the photos we are sending off to a service to be digitized. We have already done this with most of our printed photos. We no longer have dozens of albums that rarely get looked at.
As I look at the slides, I see so many random landscapes. There are way too many sunsets (though every one is still beautiful to me). Buildings I don’t remember being in or visiting. Street scenes that are a bit off kilter or poorly lit. I filled up half a grocery bag with slides that will just be thrown out.
Yet among all these pictures are some real treasures. A shopkeeper proudly showing his wares at a bazaar in Tehran. Me fishing off grandpa’s dock with one of our children. Little Egyptian children in their crisp school uniforms. A softball game with all my college friends. A candid portrait of the beautiful woman who would become my wife.
Reviewing these slides has been like a trip through time. (In fact, I heightened the nostalgia by putting a few records on my new turntable—Neil Young, Harvest, Van Morrison, Moondance—you get the idea.) Though I have gotten better at it, it is not easy to throw away old photos and slides. It is as if I am pronouncing judgement on that era of life and saying that it doesn’t matter any more. While I don’t live in the past, it is still hard to let go of photos which are almost synonymous with the memories.
It is easy to throw away the 20 photos we took of the giraffe at the zoo, but how can I get rid of even one of the photos of our children burying themselves in sand at a the beach? It is no problem trashing most of the photos of the pyramids at Giza, but how do I let go of the image of my college friends in Lee’s red convertible?
But that’s what life is about. Letting go. Dying. And even these little deaths can help us approach that reality. And I need practice. Because some day in the not too distant future I will leave this reality—and I’d kind of like to be ready for it. I’d like to not be clinging. I’d like to look back in gratitude. I would like to release everything with courage.
Now I know I don’t get to choose exactly how all this goes, but I would like my departing to be a moment of love. Perhaps there will be sadness, perhaps there will be pain, perhaps there will even be confusion—but I would like there to be love. And if there really is love, then I can let go in peace.
Spiritual Practice: Ask Someone if You Can Take Her/His/Their Picture
Surprisingly, when I look back on some of my old photos, some of my favorites are ones that are posed. Not so much the posed pictures of family and friends, but times when I have invited strangers to pose. These photos are special, because I know it took some courage for me to ask the person to share his or her life in this way. They are special because they often show forth a person’s pride and presence in startling forms. I have tons of scenery and architecture photos. I’ve got lots of pictures of myself with friends and family in interesting places. But truly, there are only a few of people we met along the way that I had the courage to ask for a picture. There weren’t very many that I was willing to risk asking that kind of vulnerability.
But it is a good practice. It connects me with people at a deeper level. Toward the end of our walk on the Camino de Santiago in 2018, Lena and I asked a few people if we could take their photo. Sometimes we posed with them. Other photos were just the person him or herself. I wish I had asked more. The experience of pilgrimage that we shared is something that is powerful (though different) for each person. I would love to remember more of how it looked on the faces of others.
I wonder what it would mean to talk not about “taking” photos, but about “giving” them. I really don’t want to take things from anyone. In fact, I find myself less and less enamored with trying to capture all my travels in a print or digital format. What I am interested in in what people might share. And it seems to me, I might never know what another person will give unless I ask. So just maybe, asking someone for a photo is a good spiritual practice. At a minimum, it is a way of being vulnerable and asking another person to share a small bit in your life. And isn’t vulnerability and sharing what spiritual life is about?