Christ’s body and quid pro quo

Quid pro quo basically means that “if you this for me, I’ll do this for you.” It is what elected officials practice from the day they announce their candidacy; they promise to lower taxes, provide free medical care or higher education, increase employment opportunities jobs and spend more on the military in exchange for our vote and their job and the power, prestige and perks that come with it.

So it was that Donald J. Trump in 2016 promised white Christian evangelicals that he would stock the federal courts with conservative judges, better position the Supreme Court to rule in favor of pro-life litigants and “make America great again.” And the Christians responded, with some 80 percent of white evangelicals voting for Trump, choosing to overlook the candidate’s weak moral track record, foul language, propensity for exaggeration/boasting (aka lying) and overall disrespect for women, the poor and “foreigner.”

If there were no quid pro quo coming to the evangelicals, if Trump had been blue rather than red, it is likely Christians would have found plenty of reasons to vilify this candidate. But he offered quid pro quo, and much of the American church embraced both the candidate and the idea of being “in bed” with his power and the GOPP for the next four years.

History teaches us that these kinds of deals never work out well for Christ’s body, the church. If the church becomes so inseparably aligned with a man of power like Trump, it risks going down with the ship when the captain rams into the iceberg. To the unbelieving/skeptical population outside the body of Christ, US Christians are responsible for Trump being president, and if Trump has embarrassed nation, he has embarrassed the church, as well. Like it or not, secular media conveniently pigeonholes Christians by color and theological bent; in the mind of the media and its consumers, if the majority vote a certain way, they represent the entire body, and each and every American who calls himself “Christian” is therefore responsible for the state of things caused by the evangelicals.

Disclaimer: I did not vote for Trump, and I did not vote for Clinton. My disdain for both parties is strong enough that, unless I feel strongly about the candidate’s qualifications and character, I don’t vote for a major party candidate. Yes, that is essentially “throwing away the vote” when it comes to selecting a president. Hopefully, if enough of these votes are “thrown away,” the parties will realize there is a group of Americans who are tired of the Electoral College, the mudslinging and time and money wasted on political battles while the nation burns. Hopefully.

In November 2016 it was business as usual, however. The evangelicals apparently won the election and have received their quid pro quo. Last month, Franklin Graham and hundreds of other evangelical leaders enumerated those benefits as they stood behind their man following publication of Christianity Today’s op-ed piece questioning Trump’s morality. The president was quick to marginalize the magazine, its editor and readers.

Thus, the body of Christ in the United States has become further divided —not over doctrine, Biblical interpretation or liturgy—but whether or not a man whose entire life has been focused on acquiring worldly riches and power is saint or devil.

From a scriptural standpoint (1 Timothy 2:1-2), we are to pray for our president (“kings and all who are in high positions”), whether he is saint or devil, Republican or Democrat; regardless if a quid pro quo was won for the church (not that God really needs the actions of Donald J. Trump to accomplish his will). Further, as Christ’s representatives on this planet, we are called to be peacemakers and not give special attention to the wealthy and powerful. But the church has broken with these practices by entering this quid pro quo. And this alliance between the president and evangelicals must remain strong; Trump and his party absolutely must have a majority of the evangelical vote to win in November. But what happens after November, especially if Trump loses?

As one who has been through trauma of narcissistic abuse and emotional manipulation, I can confidently predict that the American evangelical church has positioned itself in a lose-lose situation. As I argue in my upcoming book, Compelled to Love, the relationship between the emotional abuser and his or her victim is a unique one, based entirely upon the quid pro quo agreement that forces the victim to “fall in love” with the abuser in the first place. The abuser studies his or her potential victim, makes entry into the secret places of the heart and mind and thereby reveals the deepest desires that, until meeting the narcissistic, went unfilled. Miraculously, as if an answer to prayer, the abuser sweeps into the victim’s life, bearing gifts, love, understanding, compassion and a “soul-mate” relationship. The victim is compelled to love through the abuser’s charisma, charm, promises and love.

The emotional abuser then strikes the quid pro quo deal: “Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. And I will keep my part of the quid pro quo.”

“Love me, marry me, follow me, and I will help you fulfill those deep desires that God placed in your heart but have been left unfilled. Trust me, my good looks, my power, my great intelligence, my connections, my money, my drive to get you what you want. In return, you must be my supporter, have my back and do whatever I tell you. Ignore my faults, not that I have any, worship me and constantly reassure me of my greatness, intelligence and impeccable character. ”

Except it never works that way. The narcissist eventually finds a reason to devalue his partner and discard him or her. Trump has effectively already done that by discounting the critical reporting of a highly respected voice in the evangelical community, Christianity Today. If the evangelical vote fails to re-elect him and his party, the church will be blamed for losing the soul of America to liberals.

And what if he wins? What if evangelicals renew their quid pro quo agreement for another four years? For one thing, the unbelieving world will be driven even further away from the body of Christ and its blatant hypocrisy in condoning the morals of a man who is quick to dismiss political opponents as “human scum” and has a penchant for falsehoods. History has shown that whenever the body of Christ goes to bed with the Harlot Politics, the church’s message and witness suffer greatly and the blood of many martyrs is spilled in the streets.

The other fear, and I hope I am wrong on this one, is that a president acquitted by a friendly Senate and reinforced by the votes of evangelicals, will keep pushing the boundaries of the power that he imagines comes with his office. The defense that he and his GOP supporters has put forth is that no impeachable crimes were committed. If this becomes the new standard for conduct in America, if we look to a liberal interpretation of The Constitution for our new definition of morality in the land, we will have ultimately destroyed a tenet long held by the evangelicals, that there is a higher law, a God-given law, that ultimately governs us.

Evangelicals have relied upon this argument when fighting for the lives of the unborn. While our laws allow abortion and give women control over their bodies and the lives of their unborn, the evangelicals have argued that God’s law clearly states otherwise:, “Thou shalt not kill (war and slaughtered animals used to supply church dinners and Chick-fil-A restaurants, exempted, of course).” God also has a lot to say about lying and kings who abuse power for their personal gain, not to mention humility. But evangelicals still believe that legislation can change hearts, a dangerous supposition that results in strange bedfellows and dangerous quid pro quo agreements.

The narcissist lives by a personal code of ethics that floats one atom above criminal activity. The narcissist is never wrong, and he or she will have a team of followers whose whole purpose to defend that false image. The church has signed on to that team, but it has yet to realize is part of the deception.

Truth is, the narcissist loathes people who have character and morals, and the abuser takes great pleasure in manipulating them to the point that they break their personal moral code and side with the abuser’s free-wheeling attitude toward absolutes. To the narcissist, the only absolute in the moral universe is what assures his or her superiority. The narcissist is never wrong, never apologetic, never the loser. And he or she needs a cadre of followers who will support that false view no matter what the cost to this faithful following.

This is the moment of decision that the evangelical church finds itself at today. Will it continue to honor its quid pro quo with the GOP and hope that any damage done due to its image will be mitigated by victories in the courts and Senate? Or will the church have the courage to stand up and demand accountability from its leader and the rich and powerful who enable behavior that otherwise would not be tolerated by the church, behavior that necessitated the crucifixion of God’s Son as payment?

Sadly, only those who have been in and escaped a relationship with a narcissist are likely to understand just how lethal this quid pro quo is to the future of our Christianity in a nation founded on principles of justice and freedom from tyranny.

Breaking the web

He always carried a pocket knife, just as his father and grandfather had done.

His was a small one, two blades, both of which were kept sharp and ready for whatever chore befell them.

They whittled sticks onto which hot dogs and marshmallows were pushed, they scraped corrosion from battery posts, cut the tags off the new plaid, flannel shirt and extricated splinters and briers from his tough skin.

They also taught lessons about life.

One evening, when his teenage grandson was visiting from out of state, he told him they would rise early and take a walk in the meadow and forest; he had something important to show him. He’d fix them a breakfast of oatmeal and Cortland apples, then put on their dew gear and take a walk.

The taste of cinnamon and brown sugar lingering in their mouths, they left for the meadow; the man’s aged black Lab led the way down the brown path.

Neither the boy nor his grandfather said much at first. They commented on the chill, the heavy dew and how it seemed as if the dog had slowed down quite a bit from the boy’s last visit, in the spring. Seeing a gall on weed, the grandfather stopped, pulled out the knife, cut open the gall and revealed its contents. It smelled like pepper, the boy observed, and they tossed it aside and continued to walk toward the forest.

Twilight gave way to dawn. The first rays of morning crawled across the meadow. He stopped next to a tall weed onto which a web hung in the motionless air, and invited his grandson to study the complex structure. The sun was at their back, and the web, shaded from the light, appeared dull and lifeless. Then he told his grandson to walk around to the other side. A ray of amber sunlight hit the web perfectly, revealing hundreds of aquatic jewels dancing on the slight breeze.

“Perspective and light,” he said. “Remember that. If your life becomes dull and seems meaningless, try looking at it from another angle. Change your perspective. And most importantly, let the light strike it. See it in the light of God’s love.”

He pulled out his pocket knife and opened it to the small blade. Handing it to his grandson, he invited him to see how many of the connections he could break before the web collapsed.

The boy began his work of slicing through filaments. The web shuddered with the slightest touch and set loose dewy tears that crashed onto filaments below. Each additional slice of the sharp blade was more devastating than the previous to the greater web, which eventually collapsed into a mass of tears.

“I want you to imagine that this web represents our society,” he said. “That every filament that runs between the connecting points represents a relationship between two humans. Indeed, imagine that each one represents marriage, like the vows that unites your mother and father.

“When the filaments are connected, the web is strong. It can hold the burdens of life, the tears that accumulate on the web because we live in a fallen world. But did you notice that when you sliced through those filaments and destroyed the web’s foundation, those tears were released upon other strands? Eventually, when you cut through enough of the strands, the whole web collapsed.

“It’s that way in our relationships, son. When we fail to stay to connected to one another, when we fail to bear each other’s tears, we weaken the entire web. The burden of life’s sorrows and trials are just too great for society to sustain without those strong bonds and committed love.  When we go to a court of law and demand the knife of divorce be applied to a marriage, the web shudders. The emotional universe that connects us to each other and, ultimately, to God, trembles at these actions. Society is built on the concept of trust, of strong bonds that result from keeping vows—even when the weight of tears pulls the strands toward breaking

“Nothing, nobody, not even God, can reconnect strands thus severed. The once beautiful web that held both tears and jewels—it all depends on your perspective—requires commitment, emotional connection and maturity in order to stay strong. Hatred and divorce are the blades in the pocket knife.”

He wiped away the tears from his eyes, took the knife from his grandson, wiped the dew from the metal, closed it and slide it back in his pocket. The Lab nudged the man’s hand; it was time to go back to the lonely house that he bought following the divorce.

 

A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.

A date with Marilyn

During a recent trip back to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Ruth’s hometown, Ruth and I did a senior portrait session with her niece, Alaina. The plan was to shoot some images in downtown Wilkes-Barre in the evening, then go to a park on Sunday morning and try to re-create some of the iconic Marilyn Monroe portraits.

Alaina bears a strong resemblance to Marilyn and is very photogenic. She’s got a great personality, as well, and it comes through in her sparkling eyes and great smile.

The session would give me an opportunity to apply my Fuji X-system camera and lenses to portraits rather than the photojournalism project for my next book, “Pleasure Grounds.” I used the Fuji XH-1 with the 35mm f/1.4, 56mm f/1.2 and 90mm f/2, along with a 16-56mm f/2.8 on a second XH-1. My four-month old Nikon D750 had bit the dust and required a major repair, so Fuji was the only option for this shoot. And it performed flawlessly.

I have always loved Fuji’s skin tones, and aside from taming the contrast and toning down the reds in some shots, very little processing was done to the color images in this series (I took more than 600 images over the course of the two days, tossed out 200 of them and delivered the rest). One standard W126 battery was sufficient for both sessions.

We started along the Susquehanna River about 30  minutes before sunset. The day had been overcast and the soft light continued into evening. I’d spotted a lovely chandelier hanging from the ceiling of a building with marble columns, and we started our session there. The 90mm threw some foreground foliage out of focus and helped soften the lights in the background, as well.

We moved to the front of the building, which faces the riverfront commons. The lamps on the wall provided soft lighting for a series of portraits. Fuji’s auto white balance did a superb job of maintaining the warmth of the incandescent lights without creating an unnatural skin tone.

Across the street, some teen boys tried to impress Alaina with their bicycle and skateboard tricks. When one of them fell off the bicycle, it sent Alaina into a fit of laughter.

I was using the Across film simulation setting at the time. I overexposed about a stop to create a natural skin tone.

We moved across the street to the park. When Ruth and I were scouting a location earlier in the evening, we noticed the metal sculpture and wondered if Alaina would be game for curling up in it. She took it a few poses beyond that.

The Wilkes-Barre Market Street Bridge is a stunning stone structure and would easily steal the show if included in a portrait. Using the 35 f/1.4 wide open, I was able to minimize its presence without destroying the beauty of the setting and model.

The symmetry of the street lamps that line the concrete paths on the riverfront drew my attention away from the bridge. The wind was picking up and her hair took flight.

The in-camera image stabilization of the XH-1 is incredible. I found myself comfortably shooting at 1/15th of second throughout the evening and getting sharp results.

We wrapped up at the park as the light levels had reached a level that even the IBIS couldn’t compensate for. Our destination was two blocks away, downtown Wilkes-Barre. We opted to carry the gear rather than drive and try to find a parking spot. On the way, we stopped in a vacant lot and waited for the traffic to back up at the bridge. A few frames were all I was able to get before the traffic and  its colorful lights cleared from the background. Although it repeated the previous pose, I had Alaina hold out her hair to catch the background color.

I had planned to use the Godox wireless flash system for this part of the shoot, but it failed out of the bag back at the bridge, and I went with plan B: a long softbox on a Buff Einstein 640 monolight. Ruth volunteered to carry the monstrous flash head, light stand and softbox (I think she was counting on it for a weapon just in case). Alaina’s mother carried the power pack, and I carried the cameras and lenses. We marched down the dark streets in search of golden light.

Our first stop  was the front of business that had circular neon lights in the window. Alaina sat on the iron grate under a tree (in her brand new outfit, at that) and I waited for the headlamps of a car to paint her face with light. Once again, Fuji’s white balance nailed the scene accurately without creating a nasty skin tone. The 56mm was made for this scene and light.

The marque of a theater across the street provided a warm background glow for a series of portraits lit with the softbox/monolight combination.

We moved across the street and under the marque lights for a series of moody images.


We headed back to the car, but the perspective of street lamps down a lonely street caught my eye. Ruth set up the monolight, the traffic light at the end of the street turned green and 10 cars raced toward our shoot. We scurried out of the street and waited until the same lonely scene that had caught our attention a few minutes earlier returned.

All of the monolight/soft box exposures were manually balanced with the background lighting, based upon my experience of working with the equipment at weddings. I wasn’t prepared for just how well Fuji handled the range of colors in the scene without compromising the skin tones. These are definitely people cameras.

The next morning was our Marilyn session at a park. The woods were infested with mosquitoes and one nailed Ruth on the forehead. With blood trickling down her face (OK, it was more like a little smear), we decided to move to another location, the front yard of a bank on Mountaintop, Pa., where we could use the fence and shady yard for the Marilyn Monroe reenactments. A lily from the park served as a prop.

The colorful side of a Chinese restaurant caught my eye as we were getting out of the car, and we took a detour.

Marilyn!

Next came the scene on the lawn, except Ruth protested when I suggested a strap of her dress fall off the shoulder.

Next came a few shots at the fence.

I backed off a bit with the 56mm and had Alaina wrap up the session with some playful expressions. Ruth suggested the strap off the shoulder in a few. We both wondered where she got that look from.

Sometimes it just all comes together. The light, the model, the equipment. Perhaps I enjoyed photographing Alaina so much because the backdrop options were so amazing and fresh. Or perhaps it was because Alaina’s beautiful eyes remind me of Ruth’s. Like Ruth, Alaina is super smart and wants to go in the medical field. She’d also make a great model, but we all know those careers are short-lived. I’m grateful for being the one who got to capture it if she sticks with medicine.

I don’t want to be a rock star

The following line is from a job description:

This is a fantastic opportunity for a rock star creative who wants to help …

We don’t need another rock star. And I sure don’t want to be one.

Frankly, I’m sick of rock stars and divas, stand-up comedians and YouTube daredevils.

I’d like to just go to work, get the job done and come home and read. And listen to music. But not rock.

This rock-star mentality has gone too far. I recall some 15 years ago, when I was attempting to make it as a professional photographer, being told by a very successful one (he got $1,000 and up just for the sitting fee on a family portrait), that you had to think and act like a rock star if you wanted to succeed with that clientele ($250,000 and up annual income).

I don’t know what happened to him and his business during the Great Recession, but I know what happened to me and my freelance portrait and wedding business. It hit the rocks. I don’t think being a rock star would have changed any of that, however. A lot of rock stars were on Wall Street back then, and we saw what happened. The rock star politicians bailed them out, and they are back at it.

Ten years later we have a president who thinks he’s a rock star. Or a TV game show host. If he had an electric guitar, he’d be all set. He doesn’t need it. He plays the voters.

We have a lot of politicians who think that because the majority of voters narrowly chose them over the other candidate, they were suddenly elevated to queen, rock star and diva. Divine appointment. A mandate from the people.

What’s missing?

Rock stars don’t serve. They entertain. They are all talk and noise. They glitter and glam while they are on stage, but back in the dressing room, the miserable person behind the mask craves that next round of applause, that next mention on Facebook, that cover, review or Tweet.

All of this may be fun and games for those who live in the world of social  media and post 30 selfies per hour. But when that person has his fingers on the nation’s self-destruct buttons, it’s not a game. And that holds true for every political office below the Oval one. Perhaps it is because my father is veteran, a distant grandfather crossed the Delaware with Washington and an uncle went through the hell of Korea, but I find it disgusting when elected officials take a rock-star approach to the office. It’s not about them. It’s not about making appearances, handing out kudos and keeping up pretenses.

Blood was spilt, misery endured and limbs lost so that we can have these elections, offices and, hopefully, committed, sincere and transparent individuals to fill them. When an elected official treats the office with the contempt that comes with a diva or rock-star mentality, he or she spits on the flag and the veterans who defended it.

It’s the same way with jobs. Are employers really looking for rock stars these days? Do they really want the grief of dealing with a narcissist on the job, day in and day out? Being a rock star or diva is a competition in deception. What business wants to hire a liar? Evidently, quite a few. I’m seeing that “rock star” mentality requirement in many of the job openings that come through Indeed.

But I don’t want to be a rock star.

 

 

Secure the shadow …

I am probably as addicted to reading camera and lens reviews as any photographer or “gear head.” Often, as I droll over the latest DSLR body or lens that I can’t afford, I have to remind myself that I don’t have time to use to their full potential the two Nikons and assorted lenses that I already own, so why waste my time and mental energy even bothering to look?

Of course, I can justify the window shopping as staying abreast of developments in the industry. But since I pretty much hung up my professional photographer’s vest a few years ago, after cataract surgery forced me into the world of reading glasses, I’m just kidding myself. There is a fine line between staying abreast and lust. Despite what that devil on the shoulder would tell you, it usually does hurt to look at that Adorama email or Nikon Rumors website.

We build mausoleums for our exhausted bodies, but give little thought to preserving our digital lives. Words, moving pictures and photographs ought to last beyond the cloud or life of a smart phone.

With the passing of my mother recently, I am reminded of the short distance I have left to cover in this life. The hair is almost gray, the hearing shot and the legs ache. Somedays the fire that once burned like the one in my woodstove on a windy night is but a few embers when it comes to getting out the camera and exploring the forest, lake or some lonely street with it. Having used an SLR since I was in high school, yes way back in 1972, I’ve documented pretty much all I can think of documenting. There are thousands of slides to be scanned, thousands of negatives whose images are likely to be forgotten if I don’t take the time to scan them, describe them and file them before the last few brain cells expire.

Our world is awash in images. Pictures are as cheap as words. I chose the worst possible occupations at which to make a living, photography and writing. Everybody with keyboard and Internet connection is a writer, and everybody with a smart phone is a photographer. You can find a photograph of just about anything online and if you can’t, capturing one is as easy as finding the subject. And when you’re done with the imaging, it will be worth pretty much what every other picture is worth online.

Paid assignments are rare and far between; there’s always a “good camera” owner on staff these days who can take the annual report or marketing photos that the company once called upon a professional to do. Parents, dads in particular, have a good excuse to buy expensive camera gear as soon as the mom finds out she’s three days pregnant.

Living in a small, blue-collar, Midwestern town where art is not much appreciated or understood makes the challenge even greater. If a photographer puts a great deal of effort and thought into making an image, develops a style or exhibits technical mastery of the media, it is likely to go unnoticed because the viewer’s cell phone is capable of producing a facsimile. I’m always amused by cell phone photographers who take pictures of other photographer’s work at art shows and festivals. I spent one gruelingly hot summer sitting under a canopy at area festivals, attempting to sell enough prints to pay for the space. After two such weekends of wrestling with a 90-pound canopy, forcing a smile as people strolled by and being broiled on asphalt, I sold the canopy and sent the matted prints to a consignment shop.

On a rare occasion I had the camera handy as I was working in the garage one winter evening. My wife had left me and the garage and property felt so lonely; life felt so bleak. I felt like half a circle, the person who was supposed to make me feel whole had left, and all that remained was this lonely cottage and bleak landscape. There was in the fresh snow only one set of tire tracks, further reminder of my solitude. Looking at the image today, I recall the pain I felt, but the casual viewer sees only a window, snow and trees. If the viewer finds some beauty in that, the image resonates. But it will never resonate with the viewer as it does with the image maker, who was in the moment, not just the scene.

I have a theory that if people want to purchase photographs to hang on their wall, they will have prints made of their own work because it is much more meaningful to them than the work of another person. They were in the moment, and their expression of it reflects what they were feeling and awakens those emotional memories every time they look at the picture. A sunset photo with a tilted horizon and blown-out sky will still trump a perfectly exposed and composed one if it is of a favorite place or vacation.

Ironically, this plethora of mediocre, easy done images comes at a time when photographers are positioned to capture extraordinary images because of the capabilities of equipment at our disposal (assuming the photographer works on Wall Street or has a solid line of credit). Lenses that are f/1.4, sensors that can see in the dark, optics with razor sharp resolution, software that can compensate for a host of shortcomings in both the equipment and person operating are standard.

Oddly enough, when I read equipment reviews the illustrations rarely depict the full potential of the lens or camera. We’re so obsessed with “bokeh” that ketchup bottles and garden flowers are used pressed into subjects for these reviews because they are handy. The old walk around the neighborhood and shots of brick walls also abound in the reviews because the new owner just had the lens delivered on his lunch hour and wanted to shoot some images with it so he could post a quick review, that is tell the world he just put down $2,000 for a lens that will be used to take pictures of street lamps. And if he has time, he’ll make a video of the item being unboxed. What’s with that?

As I look back on the subjects that I wasted film and time on, I’m frustrated by all the flower, forest, waterfall and sunset photos. Why did I take these things? 40 years later, and the sun is still setting, the leaves turning and the snow falling. Prosaic stuff.

A portrait of the late National Geographic photographer Volkmar Wentzel, photographed in Aurora, W.Va., was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve had an introverted photographer. I gained his trust when I pulled out the tripod for the session; being old school, he liked the fact that I recognized my shortcomings and desired the sharpest image possible. Ironically, the shot I liked best was done without a tripod, in a “down” moment.

Too seldom did I turn the lens on the human life around me. Introverted and fearful of confrontation, I’ve always had an aversion to photographing people. Even buildings scared me, in the event someone ran outside and challenged me, or a passerby in a car would shout the same stupid thing, “Hey take my picture.”

Why oh why did I ever get interested in this stuff?

I suppose it is because as an introvert it is easy to hide behind a camera. I am by nature an observer, and even if a camera is not in my hand, my mind is often noticing the light, the expressions, the play of colors, the compositions that take form as life interacts with life within the frame of the infinite second. Images are metaphors to me, and unfortunately few other share that metaphoric interpretation of what they see.

Laziness is another reason I take photographs, and that ties into my work as a writer. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. The one magazine I write for pays 10 cents a word, so that’s $100. But they only pay $25 for a picture, so the adage isn’t correct, or at least it has not been adjusted for the plethora of both images and words. No, a picture is worth not much. And it is much easier to snap a picture than to study a subject and really get to know it to the point a description can be put into 1,000 words rather than 36 megapixels.

I see metaphor in the things I photograph. I made this image last spring as I struggled with the heartbreak of divorce and recovery from the emotional wreckage in my life. Those things hung as deep shadows on the wall of being, but a vine of hope was emerging through those shadows, following the light upward.

What we forget in all of this is that what we’re capturing is not the real thing but a reflection, it is all a reflection or a shadow of reality. The only thing we really capture is what goes into and stays in our brain. If the researcher is lucky, we’ll take the time to write it out in a journal that has paper for pages and leather for a binding, that is cared for and treasured, and in a few hundred years opened and studied. That’s probably the best we can hope for.

In my mind, at least, a photograph does not become a document until it is committed to paper and preserved for the future. And words, such as these, are nothing more than thoughts as long as they float around the sphere as bytes. The same holds true for video; indeed, I wonder if we can truly call any “film” that is produced electronically and distributed in the same manner as “film” until it reposes on the silver-emulsion.

I find all of this rather distressing given how many people store their family’s memories on their cellphones, in the cloud and on hard drives prone to failure. Perhaps it is a blessing that all those selfies of smiling faces, tongues protruding toward the lens and noses distorted, will be someday lost forever. Then again, they were only shadows.

Earlier this week I ran across an advertisement in an 1868 newspaper. It was from a photographer’s studio; it simply stated “Secure the shadow ere the substance fades.” This morning I am reminded that the substance of mother has faded, her shadow disappeared from the walls and floors of my life. What I captured in the living years is all I will have of her on paper. And I regret that I did not pay more attention to those shadows when the substance was still with me. This, despite having thousands of dollars worth of equipment at my disposal. The camera and lenses stayed in their satchels, safe from harm, safe from shadows, whenever she came to visit. The most recent photograph I could find was from my father’s 84th birthday party in 2016.

My parents, Carl and Cossette Feather, and my cousin, Greg Rumer, and his wife Michelle, at Dad’s birthday picnic in 2016. Lucy was more interested in the food than the camera. It is the last picture I have of my mother; what happened to those other 16 months? I failed to “secure the shadow.”

It is a good memory of her; she was smiling and raving about how much she enjoyed the party and meeting the daughter of the man who built our stone cottage. My cousin Greg and his lovely wife Michelle had joined us; Mom and Dad brought their dog, Lucy, to the party. It was a good moment. And it reminds me:

“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.”

And so during a break in writing this, as I walked through the kitchen trying to remember what I went out there for in the first place, I saw Ruth’s cats, Max and Ruby, posed at the top of the steps on her heirloom sewing machine. My D750 was handy, and I quickly put an old 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor on it and forced these old eyes to manually focus for a couple of shots.

Shadow secured.

 

End of life decisions

So today I watched my father sign the paperwork that places my mother’s quality of life in the hands of Hospice workers.

It was meeting I never wanted to have. No child wants that, no spouse wants that.

Yet, no spouse or child wants to see their loved one cry in pain and beg for relief.

My mother, 85, has known so much pain in her life. I’ve seen her suffer through eye ulcers, bursitis, a knee replacement, colon cancer/surgery, gall bladder attacks/surgery, a torturous foot condition that required surgery, bowel-obstruction surgery, baker’s cyst, broken hip/surgery, arthritis, infections and many of the prosaic pains that come with living in a fallen world. And I am certain there have been others that have gone unnoticed by a son often too occupied with living.

And then there was the pain of bringing me into the world. Whether we like it or not, we all have a hand in the pain and suffering of others, even those closest to us, people we dearly love.

I want her pain to end. I want her to never have another day of pain in her life. Don’t we all want that for those we love? And so we make hard decisions. We watch our father cry. We cry. We sign.

And we think about our own mortality. We think about the day we may have to do the same thing for our spouse. Or when the spouse does that for us.

These events spark conversation, the kind that occurs at the end of the waking day, when the lights are off and you hold each other tight and thank God for giving you each other and for being pain free at the moment, at least free of physical pain. You talk in whispers and with damp eyes, with hugs and snuggles. The comfort of knowing that this person next to you is in it for life, in it for the long haul. The sweetness of knowing that no matter what, there is someone there who understands you and is your champion and your friend, who won’t sell you out for a career or promotion, for membership in a big-fish/small-pond good-old-boys and girls club. Someone who understands the sacredness of the marriage vow.

That’s what I’ve seen my parents model for 65 years. They’ve had incredibly tough times in their lives. This is one of them. But they are still holding hands. The metal bar of the hospital bed may separate their bodies, but their souls, nothing is going to separate them.

It’s all on the line for each other. Always has been. And today, Dad signed on the lines. Form by form, he did, we did, what we thought best for “Tick.”

I find myself living day by day these days. We celebrate when Mom does not have pain, when she sips water, when she is able to look at pictures of the wedding or just out the window at the snow. I wait for the report every morning from her bedside, as my father reports on her night and condition upon arriving at the nursing home, then her afternoon later in the day. We live day by day, and some days hour by hour.

She begs to go home. I can’t blame her. Other than “wife” and “husband,” I don’t think there’s a sweeter word in the language than “home.”

At the end of the day, we all want to go home. We all want to know there is a place where love, the familiar and rest await us. To be surrounded by our stuff, the things that remind us of our story or are stories themselves. The familiar sounds, smells and patterns of light that play across the hardwood floor in ways unique to our home and setting. There is only one place like home, and on our sick bed or death bed, it is the place we long to be.

All of this is a shadow, I remind myself. For those who follow Christ, our real home can never be here, and our longing not for this world but the eternity where he is found. Sick or healthy, living or dying, our deepest longing is to be with him and in the place he prepared for us,  beyond the shadows.

The movement of our pen across the paper casts a double shadow, resignation on the one side, compassion on the other. We sign the papers knowing this is best for our loved one, that the pain of loss in this world will be forgotten in the next. Tears will be dried. Love perfected. Painkillers and the paperwork required to get them will be unnecessary.

Death is but a shadow of the journey.

 

 

 

A sun sets, we beg for understanding

Complain we must about the rain, the clouds, the odd weather that tinkers with our plans for a picnic, wedding, campfire and fishing. The fact remains that the clouds are good for sunsets, and sunsets are good for the heart.

A sunset well executed can stop you in your tracks, make you want to pull over and point the cell phone toward the horizon in hopes of capturing sol’s soul. Even better if you happen to be at the beach. He slips behind the deck of dark clouds and thrusts the beach into premature dusk. Then, like the bride emerging from shadows and marching down the aisle, the solar ball dashes through a break in the deck and dazzles with brilliant beauty, rays and all.

Sun for light, sand for texture, water for waves and clouds for scale. We love a sunset over the city or countryside, but adore and romanticize it when day collapses on the beach, exhausted, panting, exhaling orange and red like a marathon runner gasping at the finish line as the crowd cheers the time warrior for besting the record. So it is against the thunder of applause that the sun as it sets with fingers tapping, shutters clicking, jpgs writing, lips touching …

Wind is the unseen ingredient in all this drama. It moves the clouds in place like stagehands rolling backgrounds between acts. It stirs the water into unpredictable contortions that roll and squirm and roar like tortured molecules. If you look carefully, you will see thin strands of glass pulled from the droplets; the strands last but a fraction of a second and then dissipate into froth.

All of this occurs because we are spinning and don’t even know it, because hot and cold air we can only feel are clashing and oddly enough the ball that casts light on the whole process determines what is night and what is day. It takes a bit of imagination to believe that there is significance to any of it other than another day is over, but poets find metaphor aplenty in the seeming perpetual motion of waves, mystery of sunset and landscape’s plunge into darkness.

We are not ancients pondering these enigmas, for our generation has gone far above the waves and clouds to discover the mechanism by which these things occur and developed formulae that succinctly reduce poetry and mystery to predictable events. We state to the minute when the light will depart from our gaze, but we cannot predict if the passing will be pleasant, prosaic, stunning or stupefying. Such is death. These things are up to the wind, clouds and waves. Heaven can shed its light upon Earth, but Earth ultimately decides if molten sunlight and molten water will tango, sit out the dance or even bother to play a tune. Some nights, the best we can hope for is a long sigh.

The strange thing amid all this is that when it is noon somewhere and midnight somewhere else, it is sunset yet some other place. And if I stare at a sunset in Geneva there is a throng to the east placing heads upon pillows in fledgling darkness, while those to my west are walking Pacific beaches in hope of seeing what I have already consumed. Strange thing the way stuff happens on this sphere. What if the world were really flat? Then would all of us see the same sunset at the same time, or would sunset even exist? Would sun have only two states, like a simple switch, or be more complex, like a dimmer control?

Rhetorical considerations aside, closer to home, there is an ex-lover standing next to a new love on a distant beach, holding hands, looking at the same sunset by which the two of you once swooned and loved. Some 1,500 sunsets later all of that love has come unspun and now winds itself about another heart. It is a mystery, to be sure, how things as consistent as the sun and its setting can exist for eons and faithfully perform their duties, but the human heart will have nothing to do with all that, as if it operates in a different universe. It would serve itself well to be more reliable like the sun and less fickle than the sunset, dependent upon externals like clouds, waves and wind. But that is beyond its nature, and there is no more use arguing for a predictable heart than for a predictable wave. It will crash as and where it wants and destroy and erode as it sees fit. The sun sets and that is that, accept the loss and get on with life, as we trust the sun will do, come the sunrise.

But that is whole other event.