During a difficult period some years ago, an old priest/counselor told me that as I endured pain, my capacity for feeling joy would grow commensurately. It seemed small comfort at the time, but now I believe he was on to something. Grieving the death of my son last June, I'm going through another hard time. A friend who also lost a son to addiction told me his grief comes in waves. I'm seeing now what he meant, and I've been swept along in such a wave for days as I write. I have to let it carry me and feel the grief but not let it drown me. When the wave passes, I'll be able again to perceive beauty around me, which is always there whether I see it or not.
He was an Anglican priest, and his son was alcoholic, too. He understood the anguish I felt watching my own son spiral down. When I asked how to deal with it, he said: "Carry it."
"Carry it?" I asked. "That's the best you can do for me?" It was, he said, so I tried carrying it with as much dignity as I could muster and then asked: "What's next?"
"Embrace it," he said.
"Really?" I said. "I don't ever see myself doing that," and I didn't for years. While my son was alive I still thought I might do something to steer him from his self-destructive path, but his death ended that. Lately I haven't been embracing my grief; I've been wrestling with it. I grapple onto it and throw it aside. Then I get some respite before it comes back. Will I ever come to embrace it? I don't know. The old priest was right about the joy part, though. I'm having my moments between waves.
I'm seeing too much beauty around to record and preserve, though I try hard — a nice problem to have. I've been able to extract increasing measures of joy in attempts to replicate it. Never do I go anywhere without a good camera near at hand. If it's not slung over my shoulder, it's in my car or truck parked nearby. If I'm taking pictures, I know I'm healing. In letters, emails and texts, I use words as a medium for capturing and preserving and those go to people I love, almost always family. Occasionally I use this space to express what I'm feeling as well as thinking, but in a somewhat muted form.
Whether my method of capture is visual or verbal, it always falls short. The scene itself is always more beautiful than my picture of it; the thought or feeling is always more profound than my description of it. However inadequate my recording efforts, they please me more as time goes by. Pictures I took two, three or 10 years ago seem more adequate because the memory of the experience has faded while the quality of my visual or verbal facsimile remains undiminished.
My pictures are my own. I don't sell them and I'm the only one who sees many of them. Every Christmas, however, I collect four or five hundred "best of the year" images and put them onto miniature flash drives for my children. These they insert into digital picture frames I gave them a few years ago. When I visit, I see those images displayed in 5-second intervals on their walls. It's possible they only turn the frames on when I'm visiting, but I don't think so. I suspect they're used often because the pictures are almost as meaningful to them as they are to me. Every shot is imbued with whatever I was feeling as I saw the beauty in the loved one or the scene. I saw and felt something exquisite each time I snapped the shutter.
Before I had a good digital camera, I always had a good film camera, and I shot slides rather than photos. The light capture was better in slides, and capturing light is what photography is all about. Today, I much prefer seeing my digital photos on a computer screen or digital picture frame than on a print. Prints are disappointing, but I still enjoy them. I can derive pleasure while learning to dry mount, pick out a matte and put them together in the right frame.
Though I seldom read what I've written after it's mailed, sent or published, I often look at my pictures. As when listening to an old song or smelling an old, familiar scent, seeing my images of special people and beautiful scenes brings it all back. They help me realize I have much for which to be thankful. Thankful to whom? Why the God who made us, who sustains us, and who calls us home when He's ready, of course. Who else?
Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine. He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.
- Category: Columns