In 2013, I met a woman at a friend’s birthday celebration on a Brooklyn rooftop. She was an amazing illustrator - smart, with a vibrant personality. She spoke her voice, and had strong opinions, but she wasn’t loud or boisterous. Her presence was calming. I only met her once, but we connected on Facebook shortly thereafter, and never spoke again. We moved forward with our lives as Facebook “friends” - you know the ones. And then, a year ago, during a bike ride with our mutual friend to Fort Tilden beach for a day of swimming and relaxing, I found out that this talented and bright woman had just died in a sudden and terrible accident. Like I said, I had only met her once, but my vision of her and the life she was creating come to mind so often, even now.
I was cleaning out an old email folder a few days ago, looking for some piece of information, and I came across the one and only message I had ever received from her. I had forgotten that it even existed. At the party I must have been telling her how I wanted to be a photographer, because her message to me said, “I looked through some of your landscape photographs on Facebook. They are beautiful!" Curious, I clicked on the links in her signature block - Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Behance. The message for all of them was the same: Sorry, this page is no longer available. I couldn’t help but feel saddened, to see firsthand that this digital life we place so much emphasis on is fleeting. It’s a shell. It will vanish once we are no longer physically present to keep up with it. But by no means does this signify that this woman is gone. I’m sure that her family and friends think about her every single day. I’m sure that they carry her spirit within their hearts - the memories, the words, the good and the bad. She lives on in the lives of those she touched, the ones who really knew her. Even in me, the one who didn’t know her at all.
And here I am still finding myself in an in-between state of mind after so much time has passed. Always having one foot facing in the direction of my dreams, the other afraid to leave the world I’ve grown accustomed to. I am under the impression that I cannot make a mistake - that the wrong choice will catapult me down a road of misery. But that is such a narrow-minded way of thinking. Nobody has ever been on a road where it was impossible to turn around, or diverge and go a different way. Or even keep on moving forward should it turn out to be the right way. I still speak about taking my photography to a professional level as if it might be the wrong decision. Why spend time worrying about that at all? I’m asking the wrong questions. Life is short. Will I regret taking this leap, even if it fails? I already know the answer. Will I regret not having tried if I waste any more time with the "what ifs" and uncertainty of what lies ahead? I know that answer too.
I met a new friend recently, a handful of years younger than myself, and she’s an incredible artist (an illustrator, actually) contemplating life and how to stay humble and true to self when one’s passion becomes her livelihood. I spoke the same words I always do - “Yes, me too. I often wonder, if I did photography for money would I even enjoy it anymore?" Well, why not continue wondering, but try it still? Why not walk down that road and see where it leads. If there are lessons to be learned, now’s the time. Now is the time. So moving forward, my advice to anyone (including myself) letting fear of the unknown stand in the way of pursuing her dreams, is this:
Do anything and do everything. Do not believe that the first decision you make has to be the right one. Live a messy life, making all the mistakes, and learn from them. Don’t think too hard about it, because you already know the way.
**In memory of an angel, Arlene Ellis, whom I did not know, but wish I did. One link in her email was still working.
We moved. We moved to Denver, and now here we are. It’s been three weeks but it feels like it’s been both three days and three years. My sister recently reminded me that when we are anxious or when a lot is changing all at once, we have the tendency to lose track of time in this way. Days can feel like minutes, like months, like years. Or they can disappear from our memory entirely, gone just like that. A while ago when I was first starting out in my mindfulness meditation practice and was completing an 8-month MBSR course, I wrote that as humans we are always chasing after time, feeling so often like it’s slipping through our fingers. We feel there is never enough time. But I noticed while meditating as a beginner that time seems to slow down to a dreadful pace - a pace in which one notices the legs going numb, the mind wandering to all sorts of weird thoughts we never knew existed within our brains (Am I ok?), the sounds in the room - the coughs, and the bumps - and the shifts in energy. I wrote that if it’s more time we are seeking, perhaps the answer lies in being present and noticing just what is in the moment. Not chasing after the future to-do lists of the day ahead, or ruminating on what was said or done last night, but just being here. In the present moment we are one with time and time no longer exists as an illusion. We just are. It just is.
Even now, two years into a practice, I falter and I stumble. Some days it seems like I’m further from myself than I want to be. Furthest from my hopes and dreams than I’ve ever been. Lost. Fumbling. Splashing around in this ocean of a life, as all the other fish swim past me with such clarity. Or at least it feels this way. See, we arrived here in Denver and the first few days were great. I compared everything to Brooklyn. Trader Joe’s is empty in the early evenings and I can happily push a cart through the wide aisles. The sun has been shining every single day since we arrived. Even when the forecast calls for clouds and rain, it seems we still wake up to the blinding sun shining through our bedroom curtains. The rain falls here and there in the early evenings, making way for gorgeous sunset skies and a break in the late day heat. No sticky subway platforms either - here people breeze by in the mornings on their bikes, or drive to where they need to be. Also, it’s no lie that strangers seem friendlier. They smile and say hello on the sidewalks walking their dogs, and in the park, and at the coffee shop, and even in the checkout line at The Container Store (where you can then get in your car and drive your detailed plan for an organized life straight to your back door instead of transferring from one crowded train to the next before then walking a mile and up six flights of stairs).
Okay. But here we are three weeks in and things feel heavier. The sun is still shining. The people are still friendly. And I compare everything to Brooklyn. I miss my friends and family. The beautiful home we moved into is empty and will remain that way until we find jobs to pay for all the furniture and things we need to fill so many large rooms and walk-in closets (honestly, I had become accustomed to using the space under the bed, on top of the fridge, and inside of the stove for storage in NYC). Time is spent job searching and worrying about things I told myself I was okay with months ago. Even in the midst of the miracles and beauty entering my life I seem to only have my eyes on all the things that are wrong and that feel hard.
This is where the importance lies in speaking our “truths" and having someone close by to love us and to say, “Well, not quite. Have you ever thought that maybe truth also lies in the opposite of what you are believing to be true?” Yes, I miss my friends and family, but I missed them when I was in NYC as well. And living life there was so fast, everyone was always on the move, and time together never did feel as quality as I expected. And yes, the beautiful home we moved into is empty, but it felt so good to rid ourselves of all the unnecessary things that are just things - they don’t provide the joy or happiness we seek in this life. There’s room now to buy only what we feel we need, or what does bring us joy, and decorating a new home with vintage and flea market finds is seriously one of my favorite things to do. And as for lack of structure and routine right now, well on one hand it can feel overwhelming to wake up and not know what I need to get done in a day, but on the other hand it allows me the freedom to design my day according to my heart and my needs in the present moment.
The key to all of this is patience, and patience is something I struggle with deeply. When I think I know what I want, I tend to want it right away. It creates suffering - for while I seek or wait or work, I am wanting. Yet I know that all the goodness and growth lies in the journey, not solely in the destination, and so I am proclaiming here my desire to embrace this journey now. Let me use these moments and recognition of truth to redefine the ways in which I will tackle and embrace some of these challenges that lie ahead, and to focus my free time on the passions, people, and places that sustain me and lift me up.
Anything and everything is possible, as long as I believe it to be true.
Below: photographs taken on our 4-day road trip from Eastern Pennsylvania to Denver, Colorado.
Overnight stops: Toledo, Ohio (not pictured) - Chicago, Illinois - Northwestern University/Lake Michigan - "Brooklyn" in Iowa/Iowa City, IA - "Coney Island" in Nebraska/Lexington, Nebraska. Small reminders of home along the way.
Who knew that a forty-eight hour visit to Beesley's Point, NJ could hold nearly all of my favorite things: Family. My best friend. Her birthday. Clams we dug up ourselves. The bay (opposite the ocean). And also Bay (the dog). Sunrises. Sunsets. Wet suits. Baby's butt (and hands, feet, and toes, etc...). Sunshine. Indoor/Outdoor showers. Rum punch. Late night convos. The moon. White wine. Sea birds. Wildlife. A vintage airstream. The magic hour. Laughter. And tons of love.
It’s difficult to find the right words. In fact, I’m not even sure they exist. Yet here I am, feeling so much, compelled to share something. Anything. I can try.
This place is so special to me. I feel, just recently, like I am a puzzle, and the peace offered here is the missing piece. I felt whole here this week. Complete. Like I had been returned to myself. Happiness.
This place is where my mother’s bones and flesh, once alive but now only dust, have settled among the sand and the sea, the shells and pebbles, the sandpipers and seagulls, the crabs and seaweed. We scattered her ashes here, on this beach, on the morning of what would have been her 50th birthday: October 11th, 2008. It wasn’t a request she had made, that she be placed to rest here at the furthest southern point of the island she called home every summer. In life, we never spoke of such things. There is so much I don’t remember in the aftermath of her death, and how we came to this decision is one of those things that was agreed upon at the time but with no real clarity or understanding as to why.
My sisters and father and I have visited this landscape every year since, but this time I went alone, and it felt different. Even on the few days of damp fog and dreary skies, I felt a calm within, resisting to mirror the elements of nature surrounding me. It felt to me so bright and beautiful - a complete gift, perfect in every way, overflowing with wildlife - the songs of birds, and roaming beach bunnies, actual rabbits that seemed to appear like magic before my eyes and then disappear just as quickly. I was in awe of the sound and force of the surf breaking on the cold, wet sand, and the blackness of the rocks acting as a barrier and home to so many creatures. I was gifted treasures too - two large empty conchs, layered and shaded in hues of gold, grey, white and blue. The sea within a shell.
In years past we would visit Stone Harbor Point at the beginning or end of our time at the shore, eager to be there, but then also eager to leave some of the pain and hurt behind as well. This week, I went back every day, and I truly felt as if there was a strong pull keeping me there - it would have been harmonious to stay all day, every day. Leaving each time was like saying goodbye to the person you love most in this world. Being present there, fully aware and engrossed in the vastness of the land, brought me such comfort that I felt at a loss when it was time for me to go.
I can’t be sure of the reason for this shift, for this immense sense of peace and understanding in this place, but perhaps it is paralleled with healing. Maybe, finally, my heart is healing. Maybe I am opening myself up to the possibilities for the future and loosening my tight grip on the past. With love and gratitude.
I still miss her every day.
Carson and I managed to make it to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden just as the main esplanade was in the beginning stages of blooming last weekend. In my nine years as a New Yorker (and yes, I do consider myself a New Yorker after nine years), I have visited the botanic garden countless times, but my past visits had never coincided with this short-lived, joyous occasion. We walked the green-canopied paths, the branches overhead throwing speckles of shadow and light at our feet, a sea of tulips moving along with us, blooming flowers every color of the rainbow and more, as we made our way to the main esplanade of cherry blossom trees. There, the sea of tulips transformed into a sea of people with smartphones and selfie sticks, an unfortunate byproduct of any fascinating attraction these days. Luckily, it is easy to forget, or at least ignore, this unnatural part of things if you camp beneath one of these flourishing majesties, your head resting on the chest of the person you so love, staring up into the rich pink-and-white petals, so pretty you swear you could take a bite and in fact be tasting delicate clouds of the most delicious cotton candy the world has ever known. Tranquil moments like these can often times be brief in the city, but are rarely forgotten, and worth every fleeting minute.
Note: Widely celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry, and art, sakura carry layered meanings. For example, because they bloom briefly, the blossoms are often seen as a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of living. At the same time, the joyful tradition of hanami (flower viewing) is an old and ongoing tradition.
you found me in winter
and saw my beauty then,
even as i ached for warmth
and worried for change.
you loved me with patience
and showed me time ...
now look at me.
i have bloomed in your presence.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Dia:Beacon in Beacon, New York, just go. A former Nabisco box printing factory on the banks of the Hudson River, Dia:Beacon is home to a collection of contemporary art enhanced by the textures, lines, and natural light that contribute to this beautifully designed space. Light and shadows play, and the visitor experience is transformed, just as it is true in our natural world.
John O’Donohue said that landscape recalls us into a mindful mode of solitude and stillness where we can receive time. I experienced his words as truth this past Saturday when we took a short winter hike to this lookout at Hawk Mountain. Taking the time to be in nature, even with the cold earth and bare branches, allows me to regain my clarity and a deep sense of calm. All of life in these moments feels to be unfolding in perfect timing, including my own.
this is not a still life.
ever evolving human beings.
this life is not static, and never can be.
the pain comes when we reject change,
when we ache and plead
for things to remain
the way they are, just now;
or were, once upon a time.
and we stand still in fear,
unable to look closer
to see that the people, things, moments we love
have already taken on new shapes.
and are waving to us,
calling to us
from the road up ahead
around that bend
where we dare not go.
but do we not remember,
it is only the unknown
of which we are afraid?
to touch it, feel it, smell it, taste it
is to know it.
so we take one step,
and then one more step,
and then another ...
for we, too, are changing.
~ words and image by melissa markle