Calm and Beauty and the Seeing Soul
Have I always had a calling to write? I can say that I've always had a calling to see. I knew I had a calling to feel what I saw and to hold that in the space in my ribcages reserved for small moments of awe. And I knew I had a calling to secretly preserve the juicy, red light of my soul which I saw as a pomegranate seed, tucked away in the pith of me.
Poets are told to stay away from the word, even: soul. Which is why I was drawn to the words of Rumi, via Coleman Barks so thoroughly when I found them. Barks has written a commentary on the work of Rumi’s father, Bahauddin. He remarks on Bahauddin’s line, “If life troubles dry you out…” saying, “I take this to mean if situations you live through reduce the charge of your current, the juicy verve of responsive awareness, then you should consider those as dangerous to your soul.”
I have always had a calling to guard the charge of my current, I have always wanted in equal measures – calm and verve. How I have brought this balance about, when I have, (and we all know how rare and maybe mythical is balance) is by looking closely at things. These days, by which I mean, for years now, I walk around with my camera, which is a way of slowing down one’s seeing, refreshing the way I look at the world. I like what the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski once said about beauty in an interview: “What is beauty? I think you don’t need to define it; the issue is rather what does beauty do to us. I think it catapults us to a higher layer of atmosphere.” So, why not look for beauty with an openness that doesn’t require definitions, and in doing so refine our notions of its possibilities? Why not be changed by it? Why not exist in a higher layer of atmosphere?
If you like taking pictures, it's inevitable that you will become rather obsessed with photographing the ‘golden hour’ – the first and last hour of sunlight in a day. I’m not alone in this obsession, and once you begin, it’s difficult to be satisfied with light at other times of the day. The movie, The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick and starring Brad Pitt, was apparently almost completely filmed during the golden hour.
Summer after summer, I walk outside with my coffee first thing in the morning, sometimes still in my pyjamas at 6 am. And the world seems renewed, refreshed. Summer begins with a kind of post-winter malaise. The new growth, the light, hardly seem real. But then I start clicking. The peach rose bush, the pot of multi-coloured zinnias in that diffuse light, each morning a little different – the magic comes back. And this is the other name for the golden hour – the magic hour.
And maybe in the fall, the golden hour is even more poignant, more fleeting, more ensouled.
Part of the desire to capture the golden hour, I have come to believe is the desire to photograph the soul, the yellow wing of things. The astonishing hidden haloes that all things possess - their sudden and fleeting visibility. The soul rising up as the darkness descends, or the reverse, the eternal shuffling of night and day, day and night, as Adam Zagajewski once put it. The night shift passes the day shift in the hallway, whisper to each other as they pass, amaze me, amaze me.....
In a poem by Edward Hirsh, titled, “Poor Angels,” (from his book Wild Gratitude) he says,
“At this hour the soul is like a yellow wing
slipping through the treetops, a little ecstatic
cloud hovering over the sidewalks, calling out
to the approaching night, “Amaze me, amaze me”
And so I spend time as often as possible, walking out into mornings and early evenings, saying, amaze me, over and again. Much as Cezanne noticed that ‘the sugar bowl changes everyday,’ I have also learned that, well, everything, changes every day, a thousand times a day. I knew this before but I came to know it more intimately, through time, because it seemed every chance I got, I was out there looking at those bright flowers in my backyard, the weary leaves in fall, the bare branches in winter, and then back to the new fresh green sprigs in spring.
I photograph leaves and flowers outside with the streaks of golden light reaching through them, bathing them, altering the atmosphere around them. And in turn, the atmosphere around me is altered.
I go through these periods where I feel quite foolish for taking pretty pictures of things everyday. People are always asking if it’s something I make money from doing. And aside from a few sales through Getty images, no, I don’t. There is this feeling that it must be justified somehow, this looking, this obsession with seeing how things change in the light, and in seeking beauty in what can be mundane, quotidian, and in those things to which we become dulled. There is the feeling that we must be given permission to do those things that enliven our souls, and awaken us to beauty.
I suppose there’s a reason that one sees the following quotation by Howard Thurman so often. He says, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
And this, in my mind, is all the permission you need.