Past becomes present

It’s taken me many years to realize the past is never truly behind us. No matter how hard I work to process memories, to build coping skills, to make a safe place for myself in the world, to keep grounded in the present, at any moment the past can become my present. Despite all of my work and awareness, it still surprises me that past trauma leaks into the present.

I was traveling recently, spending a few days in Albuquerque with my wife enjoying New Mexican food and time with new friends. Like all travel there were ups and downs. Visiting the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe and lunch at The Pantry were both definite positives, the altitude, summertime heat, and sparsity of the Albuquerque’s downtown distinct negatives. Yet, as we wound down the last night our trip was leaning into the positive experience column.

Then a cousin reached out to let me know she’d heard my mom was in the hospital in Florida. Her electrolytes were very low and things were serious. It was too late to call anyone on the east coast, so I had to sit with worry until morning when I could call to my mother’s best friend for more info. It was a long night, and fortunately I found the situation had improved overnight and mom was out of danger. Yet I’ve been reeling ever since on an emotional time travel journey I didn’t expect or need.

ABQ as seen from the air

Anxiety has become my almost constant companion. Arms crawling and aching, an ongoing drop in my stomach, fuzzy and disconnected from the world, I have just been getting through each day. Every time I talk to my mother, it throws me further off, to the point my wife takes one glance at me post phone call, and asks what’s wrong. And yet, I still struggle to connect to whatever these feelings are because I am once again the child who could be unsafe at any moment.

For years after my childhood memories came tumbling out of my head, I was completely disconnected from my mother. Interacting with her was too much of a trigger for me. I’d wind up struggling and anxious, yet disconnected from those same emotions. Instead I’d feel flat and numb just like I had been as a child. Which made sense – I’d never been able to deal with what happened to me in the moment. I was a child with no tools and no means of escape, so the experiences and emotions got bottled up and stored in the cellar for another day, or maybe forever.

For a decade, I’ve been operating on the premise that time and work in therapy would lessen the impact of these past experiences and emotions. That they were being processed into manageable chunks. Since the Pandemic, I have slowly, cautiously reconnected with my mother in small ways. Occasional texts, comments on posted photographs, or a card might pass between us, but never real contact. Finally last year we met for dinner on a visit to Florida at a restaurant familiar to both of us. My wife and my mother finally got to meet, and I was OK. Still, we went back to occasional contact, which has been ok until now.

I guess I am learning that there is a difference between playing in the shallow end of the pool next to the stairs where I can easily climb out to walk away and the power of a deep ocean filled with towering waves and tricky rip currents. Suddenly I’ve been tossed into the abyss, with my meager swimming skills from the kiddie pool swamped by the swells. All I can do is keep floating and wait for the current to let me go so I can swim back to shore.

Emotional Time Travel has been part of my experience before, but it’s never been so pervasive as this, lasting for weeks. If I am so affected by interacting with someone who was adjacent to my childhood experiences what will it be like if I reconnect with someone who experienced them with me? Or worse, how could I cope with running into an abuser from my past? I fear I will be lost at sea.

One Way

The life of a trauma survivor doesn’t feel like a straight line, but rather like those geometric shapes I used to draw as a child with a spirograph. You’d put the tip of your pen in a hole inside a small clear plastic gear, which sat inside of a ring gear on a sheet of paper. You’d loop the pen around and around with the line surfing away from a central point, but always, eventually looping back to that same starting point now matter how much you’d loop and swirl.

Examples of spirograph drawings

It would look like maybe you were going someplace new, but however interesting the path, you always looped back through that same groove to the starting point. It’s pretty to look at, but you don’t really get anywhere.

Going through life with childhood trauma mirrors that looping experience. You start heading away from the trauma, getting on with your life. Until something happens which reminds you. Something big, like the death of an abuser, or something small like unexpected the smell of bleach.

Congratulations, you’ve hit the apex of your arc, no longer soaring through the blankness of possibility, looping away from your past. Inexorably the gravity of trauma pulls you — back down crashing into the singularity. After a while in the black hole, you gather yourself, breathe and start to move away again. Over, and over and over the cycle runs.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the point of trauma therapy is about making those loops taller and taller, about expanding the ring gear which keeps you cycling through the same past. And maybe, just maybe that ring expands so much that it thins out to the breaking point. Instead of constraining the arc the ring fractures, and suddenly you are free. Having reached escape velocity, you can make a one way departure from your past. The original trauma isn’t erased, you’re just no longer doomed to spend your life circling it.

But you’re not constantly looping back, down into the darkness, where do we go from here? There is only one way to go. Forward. Before the past can pull you back in again.

And so I turn my face into the wind and start moving into my future. I choose to live my life, for me. I’ve lost so much to trauma in the early years, and then decades more trapped in the after effects, unaware trauma was keeping me stuck, unable to live. So now when I feel free of the pull of darkness, I choose to do hard things just to prove I can, to remind me how strong I really am. To push myself to stretch that loop to the breaking point, and finally beyond. I choose to tell my story because it needs to be told, and maybe it will help somebody somewhere make sense of their their own story.

Rain Crashes Down

For the last several weeks I’ve been battling The Numb. It’s spread over my life insidiously, filling the lows like rain does puddles, and shaving off the highs of my days leaving me flat and disconnected from feeling. The world around me seems slightly distant, as seen through a window from inside. It’s clearly out there but sensory input is muted by glass and walls insulating me from feeling.

I have coping mechanisms, but they aren’t working as well as I wish they would. My go-to methods of pushing back the numb seem blunted lately. Walking outside works while I’m moving. Footfalls literally ground me with each step. Once I’m done though, things turn flat again. Music will sometimes catch a feeling for the length of a song if I’m lucky, but then it too fades into the background. Even photography, walking with my camera to see intently and capture beauty I can feel in the world around me is fleeting, lasting not much longer than the click of the shutter.

I’ve been in this place before. In between the flood of memories, I would go flat, my sensory limit reached, my receptors for feeling overloaded. Eventually they would calm and reset, allowing me to feel again. Like now, I crave getting feelings back, reentering the world of color and variety. I know I should know the feelings will return, the numb will fade and I will return to balance, but in the middle of emotional doldrums, that’s a challenging thing to hold on to.

So I reach for the expedient thing – distraction. Reading the news, following blogs on my favorite topics (Disney, photography, travel, etc), and training for a 10 mile race in April are ways to fill time that pull my attention away from the numb even if they don’t bring much feeling back.

But then I wonder if some of the things I’m reading in the news about the state of the world I live in — war, strife, and hate — are part of the cause and the news is becoming less of a coping mechanism. The world feels less safe lately with the war in the Ukraine and numerous legislative attacks on LGBT people and our right to exist. It’s all suddenly become more personal, and I’m starting to suspect that is eliciting an old protective response.

As a child I lived in an unsafe world where bad things could happen at any moment, and even people I should be able to trust might hurt me. My world *was* unsafe, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was powerless in the face of repeated trauma. Even those who should protect me were part of it. A child can’t stand up to or get away from parents and caregivers who abuse. So I coped by finding a way to not know most of the time and by disconnecting from my feelings.

This feels a lot like the world outside my window right now. So perhaps it makes sense I’m disconnecting and numb so much, that I’m falling back to what has worked in the past.

But then suddenly today out of the blue came the most powerful grounding tool I can use. While driving to pick up my wife, rain came crashing down.

Rain Crashes Down

Heavy pelting rain is a whole body, multi-sensory experience for me. The sound of the rain fills my ears, if it’s heavy enough (like tonight) I can even feel the sound. The smell of the air changes as it becomes heavy touching my skin in a cool, humid caress. The water in the air absorbs other sound, and so the rest of the world goes quiet. The light dims and diffuses, giving my tired eyes relief.

That brief, unexpected rainstorm picked me up and slammed me into the ground. I sat and watched the water run in rivulets down the car windows as I waited for my wife. Drops would form into beads, which would merge together and gathering critical mass course down the glass. They washed away for a while my overload. The numb parted and I can feel again.

I hope it rains tomorrow.

A Photo a Day to Keep the Numb Away

Normally I don’t notice how numb I can be throughout the day. Time slips by as I go about my daily tasks and routine. I’m usually without awareness of disconnection from my emotional experience. It’s not until I encounter something which elicits a strong emotion that my general numbness becomes apparent. Those strong feelings are bold, scalding coffee cutting through my foggy emotional morning. When I’m paying attention, and attuned to my internal emotional state, I find I crave strong emotions much as night owls jones for their morning coffee.

Mug lined with the remains of a Latte

I’ve written often about my emotional numbness before. You can find mention of it in “The Bridge” and other posts here, yet I still have trouble holding on to the knowledge that numbness is a symptom of PTSD. When I know I’m overwhelmed and numb, I have various tools to help me come back to the world of feeling – cold glass on my face, a walk outside, a cup of hot coffee or tea, snuggling with Thurman or one of my stuffed animals. These all help most when I’m overwhelmed, but none truly gets me unnumb.

Early on working through my returning childhood memories, I found journaling the most effective way to process my experiences. Peeking into my life back then you’d find me in a coffee shop with my headphones on writing in my journal. Unknowingly I was using my two secret weapons to climb out of the pit of unfeeling into the world of color, emotion, and light — music and creative pursuits.

Four Old Bullet Journals
A collection of old journals. Did you notice I like Teal?!

Music is a constant in my world. It not only keeps me present, but it brings emotion to the surface on its own. I’ve discovered some artists and music types work better for me than others to elicit an emotional response. If I’m writing, ambient chill and non-vocal trance open the floodgates without disturbing the flow of words onto the page. If I’m drawing or taking camera walks, my playlist expands to include electronic pop and vocal trance. So there is often music playing in my headphones as I walk, or at my desk as I work to write. Playlists are like the handle of a lumberjack’s favorite axe there’s a well worn groove that fits me perfectly.

And yet, I am numb and disconnected from my emotional experience more than I want. I crave connection with my feelings, and to keep the numb at bay. So, this year I’m going to try something a bit different. I’m going to lean into one of my creative pursuits in a new way.

Leaning purple flowers
Even the flowers say I should lean into photography…

I’m going to do a 365 photography challenge — posting a photo a day on Instagram. Taking photographs forces me to see the world in a different way. In order to capture a photo that has meaning, I have to pay attention and feel whatever my subject is. If I don’t feel I can’t make a good picture. Seems like a challenge for someone who is numb right?

Fortunately, there is some untold magic for me in holding a camera and trying to find the image I want, in trying to feel the emotion I want to capture. When working to see strongly, to be open to the world of light, the numbness begins to thaw. I’m unaware it’s happening until the tingle of presence washes over me. The process reminds me of Arthur Dent learning to fly in “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.” He forgot to hit the ground when he was falling, and so started flying. When looking for an image that speaks to me, I forget to bump into the numbness and instead soar into fervor and sentiment.

So every day that I can this year, I will focus on finding at least one image that sparks a reaction in me. I’ll capture and share it with the world in hopes that this repeated action over time of finding feeling will make it a habit. Perhaps a photo a day will keep the numb away.

Poppies on a Northern California hillside
Perhaps this can be the first catch-up photo of the day!

Writing Roadblock

Over the last several months I’ve found myself stuck whenever I try to work on a few of the short memoir pieces I’ve started. It’s a repeating pattern. An idea, then great first line hook, a couple of paragraphs which flow out easily onto the page, and then a long slow coast to stuckness, followed by lament. My in-progress folder is now littered with a quartet of these.

Then suddenly in the middle of this writing roadblock, a complete flash piece pours out. I tweak it, get feedback, revise a bit and it’s ready for its next stage. All while the others still languish unfinished. Hoping the energy from completing something (anything!) will energize my efforts, I turn back to one of the languishers. Fizzle.

I think I missed this sign when starting on the road to make sense of traumatic experiences through memoir.

My work in therapy has also been at something of a standstill since the pandemic started. First being disconnected from a safe place ground work to a halt. Then working though every day challenges and finding a path forward for life in this changed world took over my sessions. When bits and pieces of traumatic memories come up from time to time, they are only worked with until they can be packaged and put on a shelf safely for later. Whenever that might be.

Earlier this week I was digging into a memory about a reflections book I’d used a decade ago. I was trying to make sense of what had happened to it, where it had gone. When my memory failed I turned to my journal. Sure enough I found the answer of when I’d used it and with prompting recalled why I’d stopped. Once I’d solved that puzzle I continued on to skim through a bunch of old entries, finding myself coalescing around the summer when memories of my childhood trauma started flooding back to me.

Field of Blue FLowers
So much was fuzzy during that summer of forgotten memories. I could only focus on one at a time, but each and every one got their moment in the sun before fading into the background.

My writing from that time brought back the mad, headlong rush to get down everything I was remembering – before I forgot it all again. In rereading, I found memories I’d forgotten again, and felt the bite of re-remembering horrors I’d not wanted to know. Now though, I can turn the page and move on, the memories contained for the time being in those pages. However the next next (likely disquieting) memory is just a page or two later. As I read through those raw memories of unprocessed trauma I experienced that summer, something tugged at a corner of my mind. I couldn’t quite see it, but I knew it was there just beneath the surface.

A few days later I recounted this experience to my therapist from the safety of the couch in her plant and book lined office. As so often happens in therapy for me, talking about my experiences allows the lines connecting parts of my past to take on sharp relief, becoming suddenly visible. In a moment I saw my writing roadblock in a new way – why some pieces sat unfinished, untouchable, and why others were essentially completed in a single sitting.

Every piece I’d finished was about my experiences since I’d started therapy, since I’d taken control of my life and started working to live in the light of the present. The others? They were all from the shadows of the past, the before times. They were filled with the raw emotions and and unexplained experiences which pulled me to write about my childhood, to find meaning. This pull was also my downfall. I was writing about unprocessed traumatic events which pushed me out of my window of tolerance and straight into the floundering fields of numbness.

Staying in my window of tolerance means working with things one drop at a time.

To write about my childhood experiences, I am going to have to do work in therapy with them. The memories I want to make sense of need to be processed, bit and piece at a time in a safe place. Some can be processed on the page, perhaps in my journal, and eventually as memoir, but much of my work will be done on that couch. I will explore with someone to guide me, to help pull me back, to give perspective. What I am writing about will guide my work processing trauma, and the work in therapy will help me to write. Interweaving the two means having a way finder to help me see the roadblocks, to point the path to through or around so I can make progress in both healing and writing. Because I now see for me, healing and writing are one and the same.

My road ahead is full of twists and turns to work through and around writing roadblocks- there is no map, but I have a guide.

Flowers of Disney

Growing up on the Space Coast of Florida near the Port Canaveral home of Disney Cruise Line and just an hour from Walt Disney World, it was probably inevitable I’d become a bit of a Disney fan. Being so close, I’m sure I went to the parks at least a dozen times before I graduated from high school. When I moved away after finishing college, there was at least a dozen year gap before I returned with my six year old son, and could rediscover the parks through his eyes. From the rides, to the parades, to the hidden mickeys to the deep theming, I watched him find joy for himself as I had. Sharing in his experiences I found happiness there too. In high school, I never expected I’d be visiting Disney world as an adult much focusing on the flowers of Disney World.

Since that first return, I’ve been back at least another dozen times with my son. Now he is grown, and I continue visit, but now with my wife. On good days it is a place for us to escape the pressures of daily life. It is somewhere to be present without worrying about what comes next and to feel joy without judgement. However as a survivor of childhood trauma who lives with PTSD, the crowds can overwhelm, the enclosed queues can make me feel trapped, and frustrated parents yelling at their children can trigger me.

Fresh Orchids grace the lobby of the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World.

I’ve found my typical coping techniques can sometimes work in these situations, but not always. Fortunately, I’ve discovered a very specific distraction which I’m currently enjoying. I pay extra attention to the flowers of Disney. I find if I slow down a bit and try to notice, the detailed landscaping becomes more visible. I wander the parks with my camera handy in my backpack looking for flowers, and find they are everywhere.

Snapdragons almost under my feet in the hub as I wait for the Festival of Fantasy parade.

They offer calm in the middle of the maelstrom. They are indifferent to the lives of those around them. They only car about sun, water and soil. For years, I missed the thousands of blooms present in the parks every day. Then I started to look. Now I find planters everywhere full of common varieties – well tended greenery crowned with color.

Impatients covered with dew in the town square.

Sometimes I find something a bit more exotic. In either case, I pull my camera out and search for what catch my eye, for bursts of color which make me feel something. Then I carefully frame and capture them as closely to how I experience them as I can. I soak in the beauty around me which others walking by a few feet away miss. The calm focus helps keep me present.

Hostas along a path outside the entrance of Disney Hollywood Studios

I breathe, I absorb the calm, and feel better, ready for the next thing, able to be fully present. As my collection of photos grows, I’ve wondered – why not share them with others? So here some from my last trip, and hopefully there will be more to come. I want to share both my calm and my joy es expressed by nature’s fireworks close to the ground.

A bed of flowers in the Magic Kingdom.

Spring Forward

It’s the time of year when the world is warming and brightening in fits and starts. Grey skies follow sun warmed blooming flowers, both trailed by frost – it makes the senses spin and the wardrobe catapult back and forth from sweaters to shorts. This is a bitter sweet time of year for me as winter gives way to spring, with a promise of the summer so full of reminders of the things I don’t want to remember.

Sunset in late winter.

I love the edge seasons, the in-between, the becoming. Fall and Spring are my home in the quarters of the year. Perhaps because change fits me like the old sweater I wore just last week, or because like the capris of a couple days ago, they are the harbinger of things to come. Spring and Fall keep me on my toes wondering what is next. Perhaps it’s because they are neither too hot or too cold – extremes I no longer seem to enjoy much. Deep inside, I know long, hot summer days connect to things just below awareness, bringing floating fragments to the surface, a tingly crawling to my arms, and a shake to my hands. So I’ll linger in spring as long as I can in the momentary embrace of a safe season. Sometimes I’d rather not spring forward.

A wall of purple life in the brown of winter.

Last week the three giant Japanese Magnolia trees at the park next to our house were beginning their yearly display. Driving home I saw them blossoming forth through the misty overcast evening. Disappointed at the poor light of the late hour, and determined to capture some decent photos this year, I made a mental note to head out the next day with my camera when the sun was right and the weather favorable.

It actually took for days for everything to align, but I found myself stomping up and down the little hillside with camera in hand trying to do justice to the sea of buds just set to open. While I searched, a neighbor I’d not yet met saw me and wandered over to introduce himself. It turns out he organizes a local photography meetup group. His card in my pocket, I went back to what I was focused on, intent on capturing an image which would convey the feeling of facing a flood of color. I found myself working hard to stay in this moment for as long as possible even after I was sure I had what I’d originally come for.

Japanese Magnolia tree covered in buds

Then I walked with the camera for a bit to find another moment, but as the evening wore on, I wasn’t seeing much to capture eye and heart, so I headed home. My thoughts were wandering too far from the serenity of the blooms. I felt their pull to darker places, and without something to keep my attention I decided it best to be home if an unpleasant memory or flashback popped up.

Stepping back in the house, done for the evening, I set my camera on the table and headed to the back porch to check out the sinking sun. I found something unexpected in one of my wind chimes.

I love wind chimes, their sound, their look, their delicate swaying presence. I have a special spot in my soul for geode chimes specifically. I’m sure I’ll write about them some day and dredge up a picture of my first geode – the one I picked from a pile at a roadside stand outside of Yellowstone then handed to an overalled man who cut it in two on his diamond bladed saw. The idea of prehistoric gas bubbles trapped in rock was already up the alley of this budding science geek, but then when I looked inside… there were crystals – geologic art hidden inside a boring grey rock. I was hooked.

A geode holds our star in its core.

Here, perfectly aligned with the setting sun on my back porch, one of my geode chimes held our star in its crystals. The universe once again is reminding me to stay present, to pay attention, to see the wonders in front of me, and not to give echos of the past too much sway.

Goodbye Colorado

Colorado, so often you have been my escape from an overwhelming life. You have been a place to dwell when the current moment becomes too much, somewhere the darkness cannot follow. For years you have been where I go to be safe, if only in my mind. Now, I’m afraid I need to say Goodbye to you Colorado. I’m afraid I might not need you again.

I will miss your summers with the river burbling softly through downtown Breckenridge past the coffeeshop. I will miss being covered by a sky ringed with your mountains. I will miss the inky nights glistening with stars. I will miss your blazing aspens of fall. I will miss the safe solitude of your Rockies. You are my place to hide when the world around me is unsafe on the worst days.

Blazing fall Aspen over the mountains surrounding Breckenridge, Colorado.

During the summer of a decade past, the thin air of your mountains stole the breath of someone I’d been trapped in a relationship with. Your altitude defeated their body’s lungs, and so they were sent down, banished from your high country never to return. You opened your doors to me yet kept them out, an experience I’d seldom known. You showed me I could find a place safe from them and escape the trap of my life. You gave me a space where they could not follow, where I could be free. So, I used that freedom to build an escape I could use anytime.

In younger years before your summer gift, and long before memories fell out of their hiding place deep in my head, I visited you many times. I walked among your spiking, soaring, snowcapped mountains which filled me with awe. I found tranquility meandering your meadows on the roof of the continent. You lifted my heart to the sky and gave me hope. I was never sure why I needed your hope, but I found my heart grew less heavy when held in your embrace.

Mountian towering over the town of Frisco, Colorado in Summit Country.

Over the years following that freeing summer visit, I often returned to days spent with you in Breckenridge, seeking once again the calm and comfort I’d experienced. I used simple reminders to pull me back to you: a hat I’d purchased to support historic preservation in town, photos of your landscapes, and the intense memories of how it felt to be there with you. Any of these could take me back in an instant to your comfort and safety of that brief summer visit,

You became the first of a series of was bookmarks in the weather app on my phone: Breckenridge, Disneyland, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Seattle. Places I learned to hold for myself, to recall safety. All a means of escape. Yet you are my first and best momentary refuge from the world around me. Checking your weather in Breckenridge gave me stolen moments of snowy streets, cool summer days, and everything in between nestled amongst the peaks of the Colorado Rockies… a moment of safe disconnection from my current overwhelming experiences.

A fence post overlooking the Front Range across the dry fall meadows of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Not long ago the thought of never seeing you again, of never being in your safe embrace, would have been an inconsolable loss. And yet, now I can live with the possibility. Something has changed.

This fall I had the opportunity to visit you again, this time with my wife. It was our first real trip to a distant land since the pandemic changed our world in so many ways. It was her first time into the depths of the peaks of your Rockies.

A rock in the middle of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

On the morning of our second day, my wife awoke long before dawn with signs of altitude sickness. Most of a lifetime spent away from her birthplace on the edge of the southern rockies had dulled her acclimation to altitude. We faced a choice. We could wait out her sickness and hope she recovered before we had to leave in just over another day, or descend. Despite the pull of your spiring stone, your sky, and your newly fallen snow, without hesitation I told her we needed to descend. The thought of her misery outweighed any sense of joy I might feel in your arms.

Not long after dawn we descended through your mountains making a few stops- one for tea and two for photos. As we descended she felt better, and incongruously, so did I.

I felt content, even whole. I was comfortable with descending from my safe place within you.

Mountian peaks reflected in the  Dillon reservoir in Summit County Colorado.

For so long Colorado, I’ve needed you to survive, but now I’ve found that a peace dwells within me. I’ve found safety in the person I share my life with. Bit by bit I am discovering myself. I am no longer trapped by my past and so I no longer need you to get through each day. Now, I look forward to seeing you again soon to enjoy your embrace, instead of needing you to be able to escape my past just to survive this moment.

Sunset behind the Colorado Rockies Front Range with a contrail high above.

Goodbye Colorado, and thank you.

The Bridge

I am so excited to share my first publication! Published by the spectacular crew at SFWP – the Santa Fe Writers Project – I present

“The Bridge” —> here

as included in the 27th issue of the SFWP Quarterly. Please read and enjoy! Feel free to leave something in the tip jar if you like it or simply want to support independent literary publications.

You can follow #SFWP on twitter and instagram – I certainly do! Many thanks to Monica Prince and Nicole Schmidt for finding my piece worthy of their special issue focused on the body.

A bit of background – bridges both literal and metaphorical litter the landscape of my life. So it seems only fitting that my first published piece is about a bridge. Even more specifically apropos I found photos of the Golden Gate from a solo trip years ago to enliven this entry. Suppose I’ll have to explain some to connect those things together, how one bridge led to another.

Often I write here about my attempts to cope with the after effects of childhood trauma in the present day, about the struggle to make sense of it all. Back in the early days of remembering these long hidden parts of my childhood, when fresh memories were flooding forth daily, I was completely overwhelmed. Almost a year later still exhausted despite the flow finally reducing to a narrow stream, I had nothing left. None of it made much sense and I had little capacity to create some order from fragmented bits of childhood newly strewn across my awareness.

Given the opportunity to spend a day, a single 24 hour day in San Francisco before attending a conference in San Jose, I lept at the chance. I needed time and space to myself, an opportunity to reflect while revisiting my favorite city on the planet. Perhaps it would help. I needed to try something to help myself find some small respite.

One night a few weeks before the trip, I sketched freehand from memory the Golden Gate Bridge – solid, eternal, foreboding, and yet reassuring. The sketch inspired my plan a visit to the bay front, to sketch again from real life in hopes of calming the anxiousness within. Maybe some of the strength I saw in my mind’s eye would rub off on me for real as the graphite of pencil rubbed off on paper as I sketched from shore.

Finally the day arrived. Fresh from my bright blue airport shuttle and with several hours before sunset, I walked from my hotel near the Presidio down through the Palace of Fine Arts to the bay – to sketch. The scrape of pencil on paper, the low moan of the wind, the screeching of the gulls, the rumble of distant surf and lap of water kept me present while I worked.

Yet, before I finished, it was apparent I needed to move. The anxiety and tears were back yet again, brought forth by something unknown. Perhaps memories of family trips to the Bay Area as a child. Perhaps something else. In any case, my best tool for dealing with overwhelm was to walk. So on the spot, I resolved to walk to Fort Point and the Bridge.

I had hoped for introspection, for knowledge, for calm from my visit to sketch beach. Instead I found my path incomplete. As I walked more realization dawned. This journey – how to become who I am, whatever I am, was just beginning. I was so unsure of my life and path in that moment. How does one live an authentic life, one worth living, when you don’t know your whole story, when you aren’t even quite sure who you are or what your place is in the world. How could I know where I was headed if I’d so little idea of where I’d been?

It’s actually quite a long way from sketch beach all the way down to Fort Point and the bridge. I wasn’t really prepared for it, but the body needed to move and so I walked. It’s probably a good thing I walked miles that day. My nervous system calmed with the input of my surroundings and the continuous motion. I became more rooted in the present. I had plenty of time to just be.

Golden Gate panorama

As I neared the point I started to snap pictures. The camera had been an afterthought added to my bag when I was focused on packing my sketch pad and drawing supplies. Now it became a central part of my experience as angles and framing caught my eye – old habits came back unaware to the rest of me. My photographic muscles contracting in a reflexive echo of youth.

Finally I reached the highest point of the old fort under the bridge. Gazing up into the geometric complexities of the underbelly and the sheer enormity of the edifice above me, I knew if humanity could build this span of steel and concrete to connect to disparate shores, it was possible for me to do the same. I could survive, and even thrive. I was sure I could make it back to the life I should have had. It would be an arduous journey, but one I had to make.

Every step since then has been toward the life I never had a chance to live. “The Bridge” is a piece of that story.

Seeing Strongly…

I’ve yet again been having a difficult time reading for fun. I miss reading. For so long it was my escape, my mental retreat from the world. I always carried a book with me to turn found time into fun time. Now this dearth of pleasure in reading seems to crop up when I’m struggling with memories from the past or other PTSD symptoms underneath the surface. My stack of YA and nonfiction sits untouched on the shelves next to the bed along with compounding magazine subscriptions occupying an ever growing pile of electrons inside my Kindle.

So these last few weeks I’ve attempted to use my newly discovered coping skill of reading about cameras and photography more intentionally when I noticed I’m not able to attend to reading. Why not read and actually learn to improve my craft as I distract from knowing the overwhelming things creeping up on me? I might as well get something out of my coping mechanism.

So there has been been quite a lot of reading photography books instead. I can attend to these at least somewhat. I started with Joe McNally’s “The Hot Shoe Diaries” and then “The Photographer’s Eye” by Michael Freeman. Both were interesting in their own way. Joe’s book was fun to read, Michael’s informative but neither was fulfilling the need for authenticity and perhaps deeper meaning I was seeking.

On a whim I went on a used book buying spree one weekend ordering all of Ansel Adams“The Camera”, “The Negative”, and “The Print” in his photography series plus another of examples on the making of forty iconic photos. I’ve long loved and admired Adams’ work so finally reading these books makes sense.

Well… mostly since unfortunately there’s a deeper layer here. My father idolized Ansel, and so his work sometimes disturbs slumbering memories from the depths. It makes for hesitant reading. After trying to read a couple of the Adams books and making minimal progress, I stumbled across “The Art of Photography” by Bruce Barnum and decided perhaps it would better fill my needs of the moment. Bruce seemed to speak to the part of me desiring to find a way back into photography and reading at the same time. I can’t say it has helped jumpstart my reading, but it has definitely helped me focus more on practicing my art.

In “Art”, Edward Weston is credited with describing photographic composition as the “Strongest way of seeing.” While I have always looked for subjects and resulting images which piqued my interest and solicited an emotional response, I’d not thought much about the process past that feeling. Armed with a bit of awe and some resulting intentionality, I set out to see strongly.

After work one evening the following week my wife had an appointment at a slightly unusual building. I decided to take advantage of my free time to walk around and find some images which spoke to me. Months ago I had taken to keeping a small DSLR in my purse, and so I was all set when we arrived. She went in to her appointment and I strolled around with a camera in hand as I like to do.

At first I tried a few perspectives in a courtyard but each time the images fizzled. I didn’t feel anything. That heavy stuck feeling started creeping up inside.

Shadowed walkway

Peeking around a corner, I saw a passage of deep shadows between two buildings crowned by sky. It seemed an escape from where I’d been trapped in the past, from where I starting to stick in the moment. It was an invitation to look up and back into the light.

Pac Man on gate duty

I climbed the stairs and turned, looking back the way I’d come. A change in perspective and continuing to be open had pulled me out of the darkness. Inspecting the gate, I realized the Pac Man of my youth (albeit a bit rusted) had been relegated to gate latch duty. A smile formed.

After a moment of reflection I continued around the building. The sidewalk fronted along a wide avenue whizzing with cars and trucks just feet away. I longed for the quiet shadows of the passage or even the courtyard. Still, it is better to keep going forward. Walking around a Pub on the corner, I found a vantage point with light and color. I stopped and paid attention, noticed what drew me to the scene, the light was layered, the colors contrasted, and that sky!

Around the edges of my perch were a few planters with colorful flowers and ivy drawing my eye in. With some work I managed to capture just what interested me, and not the giant cigarette disposal device almost interwoven into the ivy of the planters.

The tang of wort and sharp citrus of hops filled the air as I walked on. A brewery guarded by towering tanks and an old delivery truck stood in front of me as I down to the back of the building.

Behind the brewery, detritus from replacing the walkway to their drinking patio was stacked haphazardly against a post. Density of texture, color and light jumped at me just waiting to be seen.

Coming back to my starting point, I was confronted by a panalopy of flowers. Clearly they had been there when I began my walk, yet only now was I seeing them. What had changed in the intervening walk so I was now able to see the shock of black-eyed Susans right in front of me?

I had started to inhabit the world around me, to notice, to be in the present. I was seeing strongly just by giving myself an opportunity to do so. I’d spent a pleasant hour almost entirely present, being in the world of light instead of the shadows of my mind. It is a place I intend to inhabit more often.