Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling and they’re falling like they’re falling in love with the ground.
The summer after my mom died ten year ago, I discovered a cache of letters, poems, and old photos I had never seen before, many of which dated back to her high school and college years. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to discover that my mother–my mother!–had once been as immature and silly as I remember myself being during those years. Well, almost. There were other surprises awaiting me as well.
I think I was somewhere in my twenties when I realized that my parents had actually been people before I came into their lives. Interesting, intelligent, fun people, growing and experiencing young adulthood just as I was at the time. My head almost exploded at the thought. “Well, of course,” my mom said mildly, barely looking up from her mystery novel when I shared my discovery with her. My dad just looked at me. “When I was your age, I was fighting a war, ” was all he said, while I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my world tilted on its axis a bit more. Ever since, I’ve been hungry to learn more about them, the young woman and man who became my parents.
My mother’s letters and poems have helped me understand how she dealt (actually, she didn’t really deal) with the sudden loss of her father in a farming accident when she was 20. Reading her prose makes me sad that she never followed up on her youthful ambition to be a writer, and makes me more determined than ever to somehow, someway, realize my dream of becoming one, chronic migraines be damned! Looking through her papers I am continually reminded that although I may not be her flesh and blood, I am so much like her I might just as well be…The passionate love poem she wrote to my dad shortly before their wedding, well, I just have to keep putting that one aside because I can’t wrap my mind around that one, nor am I entire certain I want to!
But most astounding and overwhelming letters that I found were the ones I had no inkling existed, the letters she wrote to God when she converted to the Catholic Church in her early twenties. My mom was a real Christian; she lived the Beatitudes and was warm, generous, joyful, and loving, forgiving, nonjudgmental and kindness itself. But these letters reveal a depth of love so overwhelming that it is shocking, in the the same way some of the more mystical writings of the saints are shocking. It’s a good reminder that not all saints are canonized, that even those we love most have hidden depths, and that, indeed, we are all called to holiness.
In extreme situations, which have been emptied of all shelter and tenderness, that small voice whispers from somewhere beyond and encourages the heart to hold out for dignity, respect, beauty, and love.
Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food, and medicine for the soul. (Luther Burbank)
Especially for those of us dealing with chronic illness and pain, and/or mental illness, it is more important than ever that we cherish the little things. For it is the little things that make up a life.
In our society, when we talk about “the beautiful people” we usually mean the well-off, the best-looking, those genetically and financially blessed people who wear the latest fashions and frequent the most exclusive clubs and the best restaurants, etc. The grown-up version of the high school “in” crowd, basically.
But just how beautiful are they, really? I have a definition I find more accurate; and today, on International Women’s Day, I want to dedicate it to the women in my family, especially my Aunt Jo, my cousin Melinda, and the memories of my mom and grandmothers. Because they are, truly, the most beautiful people I have ever met.
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known struggle, known loss, and have fought their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross)
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
The technology, speed, and busyness so prized by our Western culture foster a habit of blindness. For all the bustle, a dreary sameness comes to mark the places where we live. We forget that there is a vast depth beneath the apparent surfaces of things.
The eye of aesthetic spirituality sees more than other eyes. Art in general, and photography in particular, helps to facilitate this awakening by granting epiphanies through its transfigurations of the ordinary. We come to know more than what appears within our line of vision.
–Christine Valters Painter, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice
There is great truth in this. I know I have come to see the world differently since I started photography…I was so blind to all of the beauty around me, in everyday things I never saw before and completely took for granted.
I remember when my mom had cataract surgery, a number of years ago. It was a joy to drive her home afterwards, for she was like a small child again, exclaiming that she’d forgotten how beautiful the world was, how lovely all of the colors were; my mom was experiencing the world in a completely new and unique way, at the age of 76. Cataract surgery–having the film removed from one’s eyes–is a prefect metaphor for a new way of seeing reality. A way of seeing with wonder and amazement.
That’s how I feel when I am photographing, for instance, purple flowers from a five dollar supermarket bouquet. Take, for instance, the lovely flirty ruffled curve of their petals, their soft, velvety textures, their gorgeous deep and rich purple tones…I live my life immersed in beauty, chronic pain and depression be damned! The ordinary is indeed transformed.
Photography has helped me to be grateful for the beauty of this glorious, fascinating world God has given us. Sometimes just the act of photographing a flower, a sunset, the smile on my husband’s face (oh my, do I love his dimples!), becomes a prayer of gratitude in itself.
What about you? If you like photography, do you find it has changed the way you see, and participate in, reality? Or is there another spiritual practice that transfigures your world, your everyday experiences?
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