A Meta View of My Flickr Account

My Flickr page contains 16,400 photos, most of which were taken after 2006. The rise of the camera phone unleashed a rabid documentarian in me; I take thousands of photos every month, furiously attempting to capture everything I do. I’m not sure why I do that even now, and I have less of a memory of my past motives. Many (or even most) of the photos from those early days are not very good, technically speaking. Blurred, or simply without a subject at all, they linger like badly written songs: I just wanna, I just wanna, I just wanna.

Despite the lack of artistry, there are some photos that I can’t bear to throw away, not for themselves but because they represent a whole epoch. Why, for instance, did I need to document my feet in black heels with someone else’s boot-clad foot? The photo fails because I can no longer remember whose leg that was.

Whose leg?  Could be anyone.

Whose leg? Could be anyone.

I remember nothing about that photo, but I do remember that time of my life, which was actually quite happy. I remember I went with a friend to Artomatic that year. A few other photos taken around the same time have the same kind of random joie de vivre. Though that specific photo reminds me of no-one, it reminds me of how I felt. So it molters in a collection of photos, representing not a moment in time but a huge expanse of time.

An ordinary image of Roosevelt Island that taps good memories of people & other places

An ordinary image of Roosevelt Island that taps good memories of people & other places

Other pictures are very specific, even fleeting. I have few images now of Matthew, a boyfriend of several tumultuous months. The relationship ended dramatically, and with heartbreak. I hated him for a solid year after we broke up, until I googled him out of curiosity and found that he died.

I wish I hadn’t thrown away all those photos of Matthew. I would have liked to have some nice mementos of our time together; a bit of charity for the otherwise fraught experience of knowing him. More truthfully: I’d have liked to remember who I was during that time so I can avoid being that way ever again. He was full of ire, and I was full of forgiveness. I overlooked serious problems because I was so wacky about him, and I became a person so far from who I really am that it makes me ill to think about it. So yes, a photo of me with a strained smile and pleading eyes would have been unpleasant, but it would have served as a powerful reminder to be true to myself. I’d have photographic evidence of what happens when you twist yourself to fit someone else’s mould instead of simply embracing the juicy, neon-love person you are.

That whole era was bad for me. The photos I have of that time are usually taken at night, and they’re dull and boring, just like I was dull and boring. I was stressed out and feeling downtrodden, and my photos reflect that.

Meh

Meh

My photography has improved. I’ve learned to frame photos, and occasionally I’ll catch a shot that is exactly what I wanted, or even better than I expected. Looking at my Flickr page now, I see that my life has improved parallel to my photos. Images of Washington, D.C., as familiar to me as my own eyes, gave way to images of sophisticated London, sweeping vistas of the green countryside, and most importantly, my husband and his family.

September, 2012

September, 2012

September, 2013 - Tower of London

September, 2013 – Tower of London

Photos of myself today show a smiling, happy face. In the multitudes of photos of Paul and me together, we sometimes look ridiculous, but we never look bored or unhappy. We’re laughing on the settee as his parents’ house, or taking a selfie at an Indian restaurant, or taking pictures of each other in the lovely Evelyn Waugh backdrop that is England. I am sometimes startled to look back and see how free how I look.

In five years, or ten, or more, I don’t know what a certain photo will represent to me, but I like to keep my options open. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say the many photos of my cupcakes will remind me that it took some time to settle into England. The culture shock was more intense than I’d imagined, and so I took solace in baking.

Comfort Cupcakes, for the expat's soul

Comfort Cupcakes, for the expat’s soul

Images of the flowers in the back garden will remind me how much I love my husband and family. The association is rather obvious: we have had a lot of family get-togethers, birthdays and other happy celebrations al fresco in the garden.

Flowers represent England, Family and Happiness to me

Flowers represent England, Family and Happiness to me

I have no goals for my photography; that’s why I always felt just fine splashing barely-composed images on Flickr. I never had any ego tied up with it, and I never cared if anyone else saw what I saw because I was operating on a liminal level, not an artistic one.

I suppose in each snapshot is the acknowledgement that I will forget, eventually. I suspect 9/11 also had something to do with it. After the towers fell, I wanted more images of the towers as they were. I wanted gleaming glass and sparkling mezzanines, and I hated that there were so few of those images (I hated that eventually the details would be forgotten). It made an urgent directive to document not only the beautiful things in life but the ordinary, because you never quite could be prepared for them being taken away forever. We saw Manhattan shivered to the last radio beam, evaporating like a collective dream. A voice breathed into my ear to write and document it all. Do it and save it for a place you cannot hope to arrive.

Sylvia Plath Says Goodbye Again

It is half five in the morning; I’ve been unable to sleep all night. It is really inexplicable. I’ve had a great night, I went to bed tired-headed and heavy-limbed. And yet, I lay there hour after minute, hour, too hot, my mind active but not anxious.

I came downstairs and left only a small light on and reached for my worn copy of Ariel. I felt like a time-delay mirror of Sylvia herself, reflecting back those cold pre-dawn English mornings. Sylvia was devastated, and I am not.

I started at the beginning: Morning Song. Plath’s tender poem to her newborn baby boy with its sweet rhythms and haunting imagery.

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

I was startled to discover a new facet of this poem. It is subtle, but maybe not subtle enough to be accidental. The third stanza reads:

I am no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand

The word “effacement” snagged my attention. The word means “shortening or thinning of tissue.” It is commonly used in childbirth to describe the cervix shortening, pulling into the uterine cavity in conjunction with the cervix dilating to allow the baby’s head to come out.

The entire poem is infused with motherhood references, and for some reason I only just recognized this one.

Bluntly, without the poetics: she is no more his mother than the cloud that purifies (?) a mirror to reflect its own slow vanishing at the wind’s hand.

That sounds like goodbye. The “wave” of the “wind’s hand” and the ephemeral imagery of wind, mirrors, and effacement all built to a poem that feels like tissue.

The effacement – the birth of her son – was her own vanishing.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe that once her children were born, Sylvia Plath was simply done with life. She was – to use her own word – “completed”. This “effacement” line feels like another twig of proof. The baby was born, and she was already disappearing inside herself, waving goodbye to him and to the world.

Notably the same word “effaced” appears also in “The Rabbit Catcher” and again references childbirth:

snares almost effaced themselves
Zeroes, shutting on nothing

Set close, like birth pangs
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.

I notice that in both poems “effacement” is followed by the sound of crying. It is interesting to see how her mind words, to find these baubles on the forest floor.

Another bauble: “Statues”. In Morning Song, Sylvia writes:

… New statue
In a drafty museum

In Barren Woman, she evokes the same empty museum, but without even statues:

Empty, I echo to the least footfall,
Museum without statues, grand with pillars, porticos, rotundas…”

In Death & Co., the museum is gone but even the pillars (her children) have vanished:

Frill at the neck.
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Death-gowns.

Do not attempt to tell me the imagery is an accident. These images and ideas mean something important. They are symbols, like her usage of eyes, and the colors red and blue. They’re all part of her rich iconography, and it is one reason her poetry is so powerful. Even fifty years after her death, she speaks in language that is still being decoded and is still irresistible. One needs to be blearily awake during an English dawn, maybe, to see some of the better hidden gems. But they are there.

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

RIP Tom Clancy

One of the great privileges of my life was a two-year correspondence with Tom Clancy. I shared a few thoughts about that time here.

After I wrote that, I had a sudden wave of nostalgia for that era of my life. Who was that girl who capriciously dashed off a letter to America’s best selling author, certain he would write her back? It amuses me to imagine. Today, celebrities of every flavor are much more accessible on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (this week Conan O’Brien accepted my friend request on LinkedIn.)

But back then – in the magical era known as “the Nineties” when people had jobs and money and free time – celebrities were a bit more cloistered. The fact that he wrote back with such openness, exuberance and kindness spoke to his character. He let me bounce ideas off him. He criticized some of them.

My book, God’s Country, was directly born from my conversations with Tom. It changed over time from the “Tom Clancy for girls” book I’d envisioned to romantic suspense, but the bones are still there, gleaming with his polish. I was learning to write. When I look back, I am agog that he was so generous with his time.

He was a terrific author and a man of uncommon kindness. He had an extraordinary capacity for kindness.

He will be missed.

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