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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.

Strolling in the Light

Over the last few months I’ve been feeling photography grow ever more comfortable. When I posted earlier this year about taking photography back from childhood trauma, about making the hobby mine again, I had reached a point where it had switched from being a trigger to a pleasure. Lately something unexpected has happened – photography has become solace.

Since memories of childhood trauma came pouring forth the best part of a decade ago, I’ve often found myself wondering how to make sense of my life experiences. Though I have explored the disjoint, terrifying memories in the safe embrace of my journal and therapist’s office, I wrestle with how to translate these experiences onto the page. I yearn to tell my story, yet how to do so without scaring my readers or befuddling them with disconnected slivers of memory has long evaded me.

Since the summer, I’ve been mentally rummaging in the junk drawer of my mind, going back over experiences trying to find a common framework from which to make sense of things. Unexpectedly I discovered photography showing up all over life, not just in my trauma memories. From pictures of childhood events, to family voyages photographically assaying the American West, to images of my own independent travel and those of my son, photography is the river that has flowed through my experiences. The negatives and positives of my life are all connected by an unending spool of film.

As I worked through all of this in my journal, I actually could give attention to it for the first time. Instead of shying away because of being triggered, I was able to embrace the idea of using photography, both mine and my father’s, as a way to understand my own story.

Bolstered by this framework of how the pieces of my life might fit together into a cohesive whole, I let myself slip more into photography. I let it envelop me, become part of how I see the world again. I finally looked back over my catalog of pictures from the last 20 years and beyond. I started to write a mixed media essay with some of those photographs. I began to read about photography and cameras, which I had never been able to do before. In daily life occasional images would impress themselves on me. Bright pansies in a planter surrounded by the browning world of late fall caught my eye one day, a Christmas wreath around a streetlight another, and Thurman with a particularly vivid background on yet another. Interesting images were all around me, I simply started noticing.

I found myself wandering around the neighborhood, camera in hand allowing my eye to once again see things as the camera might. I’d found something I never thought I would experience again: the countenance between light and dark, the sharp joyful spark of color, the excitement of the unexpected caught still. Small, even inconsequential things became my subjects and created a smile as I found life in the ability to represent things as I saw them.

A crossroads in the sky.

I am no longer only tolerating capturing an image. I’m finding joy and life in creating with my camera. I’m using photography as a tool to help myself now. When I go numb, disconnect or get anxious because I am overwhelmed by memories, a walk with the camera grounds me to the earth. These walks connect me to things waiting to be seen, to life itself because in order to capture the world as I see it, attention must be given to the present instead of what is going on inside. I am forced out of the darkness of images trapped inside my mind to instead experience the light of the world around me.

In the land of the pansies, the purple queen reigns.

Somehow moving toward instead of away from memories of my father the photographer has allowed me to work on accepting the duality of my relationship with him. In turn I have felt a peace develop around cameras, photography and how they weave into the fabric of my life. Once again photos are an outlet for me to express myself as an artist, instead imprisoning me.

There is still darkness in photography for me, but as long as I walk in the light, darkness lives only in my past.

Taking things back

There are many things about being a survivor of childhood trauma that make my life smaller, more complicated, and difficult. Things that are easy for many people without childhood trauma are sometimes beyond my reach. For example, yesterday I had a yogurt as a snack. This happens to be a very scrumptious black cherry Greek style yogurt. The yogurt is tart, the cherries are sweet and still have just a little of the snap left in their skin and flesh that is part of their magic for me. I love cherries. I’ve loved them since I was a child. Loved them in so many ways – fresh, in pie, as a compote, preserves, dried, in yogurt… it’s almost an endless list.

There is one problem with cherries. They can be a massive trigger for me. Even though I enjoyed that yogurt just a few minutes ago, writing this is reminding me too much of what they are connected to in my distant past. I’m hyper aware that a bowl of fresh cherries can leave me reeling for days with anxiety and flashbacks. So I have to limit how often and in what ways I can cherries. It hurts to have to give up something I love because of my trauma, to see my life get a little bit smaller.

I’ve lost something important to me. My life is littered with losses big and small just like the cherries I can so rarely enjoy and even then in such limited ways. It can be a hard and lonely way to live. Sometimes I feel I’ve lost so much, too many things to be able to have a life that’s worth living. Hobbies, family, foods, sounds, childhood memories, smells, and even TV shows have overwhelmed me, and so fallen out of my life because they trigger painful reactions. Each loss making my life a little bit smaller.

One hobby in particular I’ve missed was photography. I had been an avid photographer as a child. I caught the picture bug from my father who was constantly taking photographs in my childhood. He taught me how to use a SLR camera not long after my 8th birthday. After saving from Christmas and my birthday I managed to buy a Minolta SRT201 at the scratch-n-dent outlet of a local discount chain. I experimented and then took a couple of photography classes at a children’s science center in the city. A couple of Christmases later I got a nice telephoto lens. I learned to develop film and make enlargements. I had found a way to capture things in the world that gave me joy. I even took a couple of hundred photos on a trip to Alaska.

I became less serious over time. Going off to college I sold my cherished Minolta and got a pocket automatic camera. Then after starting a family I moved to a slightly better telephoto automatic. Having a child absorbed time and money but I made a switch to a digital automatic. Pictures were a pleasant way to capture the passage of time with a family, they became utilitarian. Cell phone snaps became common, and I took countless pictures of everything.

Then I started to remember. Like the tell-tale heart of Poe, my father’s Nikon I’d inherited when he died tormented me from its drawer in the basement. Instead of being a source of pride that I still knew how to work magic with a manual 35mm camera — not just any camera, but my father’s prized Nikon — it became a source of fear and anxiety. I couldn’t look at it, much less pick it up without a sinking in the stomach, tingling anxiety, and fleeting flashback images at the corners of my mind.

I’d lost real photography. Felt as though it was lost forever to me. My life would get smaller by that bit too. Yet another thing I’d loved was taken from me forever. I was struggling with losing so much of my life to the after effects of trauma.

Then Maxine Waters uttered her now famous phrase “Reclaiming my time!” It spread through memes and popular culture. When it got to my ears, I started to wonder if I could reclaim *my* time, *my* life in some way. Could I take back the things that had been stolen from me so long ago? Was it possible? Did I have to lose these things forever? Could I take back my whole life? Not all at once, but piece by piece?

I was going to try, but where to start? A friend at work and his wife were avid photographers who replaced cameras like the rest of us replace cell phones. He mentioned they had just upgraded, and were going to sell their old DSLRs. It clicked, I’d try to take back photography. It was small enough and peripheral enough to my daily life that it could be consumed in small pieces as I was ready. So I bought one of their cameras at the friend rate, and got a couple of refurbished lenses plus some accessories. I had a kit, I was going to take back photography.

I took a few pictures. It was too much. Back into the closet it went for a while. High on the shelf, packed away for another time. It would come down when it snowed or when there were birds on the feeder. Then back it would go, banished until a holiday, an event, or a particularly gorgeous sunset. Out for a day or two one holiday, it cluttered the coffee table. After clearing the table a week or so later, it ended up in a basket on the shelf beneath that coffee table. It stayed there for months, used occasionally, yet sparingly now that it was more accessible. I was getting used to the sight of it being around. Comfort was growing with its presence.

I needed a headshot for a work event, so I showed my son how to use my camera, in the process rewriting part of my story. I passed down to him something which he would only know as a positive. It would never be fraught and anxiety ridden for him. He snapped a couple of dozen pictures of me and absentmindedly went back to whatever teenagers do with their free time. One of his shots was good enough for my headshot. So, back on the table shelf in the basket went the camera.

Over time, I got desensitized to the metallic click of the shutter, to the look and feel of the camera, to its weight. I no longer had flashbacks when I looked into the lens or felt it in my hand. I found myself looking forward to an opportunity that called for my “real” camera. Now it sits in its bag next to my desk. The flap open and ready to be used on a moments notice, or to be slung over the shoulder for an outing that might yield potential material.

I’ve taken it back. For me. Photography is no longer a negative, but a positive in my life again. I wonder how I can do the same with cherries.