Archive for October, 2011

October 30, 2011

Something About the Darkness

There’s something about darkness that drives me to places I don’t expect. About twelve years ago, a friend invited me to stay in his cabin on Block Island. I drove up there alone. It was in early March. Cold, deserted. Not tourist season. One of the locals I met in a convenience store described it as The Shining.

I fancied myself on an artist’s retreat. During the day, I woke up at dawn, did yoga as the sun rose over the water, watched the snow fall out of the windows and wrote poetry. I bundled myself up and took my video camera outside to capture close-ups of frozen plants and wide shots of ships sailing on the horizon. I listened to music on my portable CD player and danced around the room. I played my flute, improvising harmonies to the melodies I heard. The quiet solitude drove me deep inside myself. I felt a trembling desire to derive meaning out of everything I saw and felt and heard and thought.

As sunset approached, my anxiety grew. I cooked pasta, drank wine, and watched as the windows darkened all around me. What had been, during the day, a symphony of soft light playing across the bare wood and woven fabrics of the cabin’s modest interior, became at night an increasingly frightening experience that threatened to overwhelm me. I felt trapped in a spartan cubicle of rustic solitude. The darkness was filled with shadows that flitted just outside of my line of sight. The wind whistled with a sinister mystery. Cell phone service – none. TV – nope. A couple of random movies that I played on my laptop helped to pass the time and tire me out. My night time poems took on a desperate and slovenly appearance as I drank more wine.

I cut my trip short after four days. I couldn’t take it anymore. On the ferry ride back, the waters were so rough that I spent the entire trip throwing up. The drive back to NYC barely settled me down, and by the time I arrived home to my husband and cat, I could only meet their enthusiastic welcome with a queasy half smile.

Much has happened since then. I have endured great losses, and my fear threshold has risen dramatically (that is, it takes a lot more to scare me). What I fear now has less to do with the cycles of light and day, and more to do with the internal spaces that I strive to fill with significance. I still yearn for that satisfying experience of self-expression, but I am not as drawn to the heroic gestures of creativity that characterized my youth. My aspirations are broader, the projects more long-term. I recognize the work will be only about one part inspiration to nine parts diligence and hard work.

It takes more of an effort to focus these days. I’m sure part of it has to do with the sheer volume of responsibilities that fall under my domain – parenting, home-owning, working a full time job, not to mention the stuff of everyday living – taking care of myself, paying my bills, maintaining relationships with my family and friends… I also know that the nature of my work lends itself to a consciousness pulled in a myriad of different directions at any given time. Managing communications for a small start-up company, I wear a lot of hats, and I spend a good deal of my time engaged in social media marketing and networking. Plus, I still work on my own creative projects that fuel my spirit and fire up my imagination. They feed back into my ability to do everything else.

When we lost our electricity yesterday in the surprisingly severe snowstorm, I was surprised at how I embraced the opportunity to be home with my son and enjoy the simplicity of the evening. Sure, I had work I was supposed to be doing, and I regretted that I would lose time on a number of key projects. But as night approached, I decided to hunker down and enjoy the moment.

To combat the increasing cold, I turned on the oven and baked a kabocha squash. By candlelight, I cut and peeled vegetables for soup while my son sat on the kitchen floor organizing his Pokemon cards. We talked quietly. We laughed. I drank wine. He added orange seltzer to my glass, and I discovered a new, refreshing kind of wine cooler. We ate soup and squash together on the couch, cuddled under a warm shawl. He fell asleep before his usual bed time. We moved into my bedroom and hunkered down together in our clothes, under layers of blankets. We slept for almost 11 hours, hibernating like bears, hoping to wake up to warmth and light.

I didn’t write anything last night. No flood of creative inspiration in the midst of a liminal experience. But I did touch a quiet place inside myself that I rarely encounter. I thought about the different people in my life. Some happy, some sad. Some  in passionate, satisfying relationships, others lonely, searching. Most of them having moments of each, since life and love are rarely if ever only one thing.

Do you get scared and lonely in the dark? We all do. Once in a while. But darkness is also a place of great magic. Memories, fantasies, dreams and desires blend and mingle into a soup of possibility cooked from the simple ingredients of our experience. It’s all material. I try to remind myself of that. All those awful moments, the mistakes, the regrets… they’re material. I’m grateful for having all this stuff to work with… I hope to create something very special.

October 17, 2011

A Master of Documentary Photography Celebrates His Legacy

Earlier this week I took my son to the opening night of a photography exhibit called Mel Rosenthal: 40 Years in Pictures. The evening celebrated Mel’s retirement from teaching at Empire State College, where he was hired in 1975 to  to build a photography program in the South Bronx, alongside teaching American Studies and Media. He subsequently founded the Photojournalism Program at the school’s Manhattan location, and has since nurtured and mentored countless photographers.

Mel Rosenthal has spent the last four decades traveling the globe from Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and VietNam back to his native South Bronx. A strong believer in the connection of art to activism, he has made it a point to chronicle the lives of people who have been marginalized, misunderstood, or simply overlooked. Venturing into communities outside the mainstream, Mel has also focused on immigrant and refugee communities, exploring their uniqueness in a way that often underscores the universality of human experience.

I first met Mel back in the late 90’s during my erstwhile foray into documentary filmmaking, at a time when he was preparing to publish his book, In the South Bronx of America. We quickly bonded on the topic of our respective creative work. At the time, I was working on a project I had undertaken to examine the lives of Iraqi citizens who had been negatively impacted by American-led sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. As my exploration took me in the direction of meeting Iraqi refugees who had resettled in the United States, I suppose it was no coincidence that Mel and I found a common bond in our pursuit of giving voice to the voiceless.

Mel Rosenthal’s work has a way of evoking the simple beauty in the humanity of people. He sees them as they are and communicates his appreciation for them to others by quietly observing them and reporting back on their moments in time. It is obvious that his is a loving eye – not sentimental or cloying, just coming from the heart, and not afraid to accept life as it is.

And indeed, his philosophy on photography as an art form also embodies an elegant simplicity. I overheard one of his former students declaring to him, “You said, a camera’s just a box with a hole,” with the conviction of someone for whom this basic truth had become a foundational support. When another photographer, who had only corresponded with Mel via e-mail prior to this first meeting, asked him, “What do you shoot with these days?” he replied, “I don’t know, whatever I have that’s around.”

A humble, unassuming man, Mel does what he does because it’s work he believes in. He has repeatedly stepped into war torn or otherwise less than cushy environments, to document the reality he finds there, captured in the eyes of the human beings with whom he always finds some common ground. He just knows how to relate to other people.

Although he walks and speaks a bit slower than he did several years ago, Mel has not lost that sparkle of life that infuses his every communication. In this photo, he is telling my son, whom he was meeting for the first time, how lucky he was to have me for a mommy. A short while later, I listened to the two of them trading renditions of radio sound effects they had each learned how to imitate vocally, impressing each other…

You can always tell when someone of significance is in the room. People hover about, waiting to get close, planning what they want to say. Some share inordinate amounts of information about themselves in rushed introductions, others work to be impressive about their accomplishments, to communicate their worthiness to someone whom they admire so much, while all are just so glad to be connected to him in some way. Mel, who has both the toughened exterior of a war correspondent and the soft heart of a child, regards each person he encounters with the same clear gaze of appreciation for their particular connection, listening patiently as he engages with him or her.

Although I never did finish that film, he and his girlfriend Bobbe have never ceased to express their support for me as an artist, and as a human being. Just as all of my unfinished projects have been a necessary part of my own development, I wonder how many projects Mel has in some stage of (in)completion, waiting for him to devote more time to them. Now that he’s retiring from teaching, who knows where his energies will be directed?

One thing is for certain, Mel has inspired countless photographers and other creative individuals to pursue their art in service of humanity. Re-invigorating my contact with him and Bobbe has already got me wondering about new ways I can make myself useful…

This exhibit will be up and running until February 3, 2012 at the Hudson Gallery, SUNY Empire State College, Metropolitan Center, 325 Hudson St., 3rd Floor, NY, NY

Photo courtesy of Ricky Flores

October 8, 2011

Yom Kippur, A Day of Reflection

Inexplicable waves of irritability sometimes make it hard to tap into the patience that I value so highly. Then there are the washes of images from my life – faces of people come and gone that haunt me with possibilities lost… connections that were never made, potential for harmony never reached. The melancholy I feel is not from regret really, because all the mistakes brought with them great lessons. But I sometimes wish that things would have worked out better than they did.

I suppose this is a great place to be in for Yom Kippur. I don’t observe the holiday in the traditional sense. I don’t go to temple, I don’t fast, and I pray in my own way. And I think about how I’d like to forgive myself, and what things I’d like to change in my life, and how I could do better this year.

Religious holidays and rituals are, for me, not explicit instructions. They’re more like markers, indicating places and times where I could strive for a deeper connection with life’s mysteries. I prefer to craft them to my own needs and the current circumstances in the lives of my loved ones. If they’re not significant to us, then what purpose do they serve, really? Mere tradition as a rationale is no longer enough for me. Too many things have been done ad nauseum out of a sense of tradition, and they haven’t all worked out so great.

Another aspect of this holiday is to honor the dead. Kol nidre. We pray for their souls and remember them. This week brought the death of several greats – tech visionary Steve Jobs, civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, and two years ago on the same day, my husband Ivor Balin Pannell. All great men, all visionaries in their own right. I am thinking about them and the way they lived their lives, the gifts they left to us in the form of their work, their words, their example. We honor them by letting them inspire us to do our best going forward.

This morning I’m listening to music. Moody, evocative songs being offered to me by my Pandora channel, mysteriously on target with my mood. Beth Orton, Eva Cassidy, Ray LaMontagne, Alison Krauss, Massive Attack, Coldplay… you get the picture. These muses channel the melancholy of bittersweet loving and yearning and feeling the prickly, sad dimensions of our happiness.

But this mood, like all, will soon shift. I won’t be sitting here in front of the computer all day. We’re preparing for a drive north, to visit an old friend, heading for a couple of days of joyful sharing and reminiscing and appreciating the beauty of the season. Time to turn this mood around!

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Today I ask for forgiveness for all the times I have lost my temper, reacted out of anger, fear or frustration. I pray for more patience, and an ability to live in greater harmony with the nuances of the moment.

Ivor Balin Pannell 1964-2009 RIP Sweetheart…