Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light — Part 6: Day and Night
At 70 and beyond, I have begun to be aphoristic. Perhaps the wisdom of the ages is beginning to condense into simple utterances of unending resonance. Or maybe I just don’t remember as well. Here goes.
Because in some way we are all part of one another, each of us is a multitude — yet also a self — and in the singularity of that doubleness, we learn our names.
When things aren’t “black” or “white,” perhaps they are not “gray areas,” but something like the swirling colors of these images: the luminous not-knowing of now.
In period of less than two years, my brother David died, then my oldest friend reached the end of a long road and shot himself, then, after years of decline my mother died of dementia.
For weeks, I went mechanically through the motions of living, without being there in person, invisible inside an invisible grief.
Day after day, it was as if I swam underwater through an endless swamp. When I came up for air, it hurt to breathe.
Then one day while sitting in a daze on the porch, I saw that the world was here, I was breathing air, that was the sun, and those were trees!
I stood up, tears streaming down my cheeks, and said out loud, “I’m back. I’m — BACK!”
I was back. I am back. And you will be, too.
I wondered for years why one person was so different from another, and why certain difficult types of people kept recurring. Here’s my guess.
In order for a human group to survive over centuries, it needs people with the specific aptitudes to face every kind of catastrophe that might threaten the group.
Some people may have to wait for years — for generations — ignored, even ostracized, before they suddenly become not just important, but indispensable — at which time they emerge and save everyone — then withdraw to being ignored again.
We model the world, then live inside the model.
We make pictures of the world, then we see the world as pictures.
If you think about something briefly once every two weeks, by the time you are my age, you have thought about it more than a thousand times.
When you learn something new, you cannot know how it will change you, or what the new knowledge will obligate you to.
Two worlds we long for:
A world in the past that no longer exists, and never did.
A world in the future that has not emerged, and never will.
There’s a kind of Uncertainty Principle
You can never really know yourself,
Because knowing yourself
I formed a love of typography as a boy by helping my father paint signs for our grocery store window in Colquitt, our little Southwest Georgia home town. He would dip a brush into red tempera, and, on a piece of brown wrapping paper, paint ROUND STEAK 79¢ lb, or SALE TODAY, or CORN 10/$1.00.
Watching those strokes go onto paper, then making signs myself, I found the magic that happens in the space between letters, the balance and proportion of parts, the thrill in the curving thickness of a C, the bold authority of the asymmetrical W, the way serifs make uprights into monuments, and the exact spot the dot floats over an i.
You start with a piece of wrapping paper.
You end with words that not only carry a message — they dance.
Love is the clearest example of where you find yourself by losing yourself, and receive by giving.
That which makes people so difficult is inseparable from the very thing that makes them so likable.
We all live in hope that someone, someday, will understand this about, ahem, us.
One of the sweetest things in life is to look at your child and see the lineaments of the partner you love.
I have puzzled over this knack we have of imagining ourselves as seen from some distant part of space, from which we are insignificant.
But we are imagining this scene, and any huge expanse of space we are capable of imagining is somehow inside us.
We can’t go out into distant galaxies and look back at our tiny selves. The very concept of the vastness of space is a product of our tiny selves. So what’s vast — space, or the consciousness that conceives it?
Grownups tend to forget that dragons speak in riddles.
The first time your world falls apart is the hardest. You feel that nothing has meaning any more, and you are going to die.
As it happens again, then again, you begin to understand that it’s just the end of another world — the end, really, of a way of being, a worldview.
It’s still terrifying. It still hurts. But it’s nothing to worry about. There will be another world, and life will go on.
Everybody needs a box.
Without regularity, order, and discipline, you can’t have much of a life.
But the walls of this box need to have windows in them so you can see the world, and doors that open, so you can leave at times.
And the box needs a door that opens from the outside, so you can come back in when you need to.
Boxes — especially the box of the self — need walls like the walls of living cells: intelligent, organic, living walls that expel what needs to be expelled, open for what needs to be taken in, expand and contract as you expand and contract, and move out to seek what you need.
(Perhaps it is not the center, but these living walls that are the self itself.)
Boxes become a problem when you can’t get out of them.
They become an even worse problem when you need one and don’t have it.
People sometimes make fun of men for believing their penises are larger than they are. But there is a reason for making this mistake: Penises, like people, like all of our bodies, are larger on the inside than on the outside.
During the act of love, a man’s body may not only lose its boundaries, but also its identity, its dimensions, its sense of separateness, so that he begins to re-know that it and he and she and this breath and this heartbeat and this moment and this amazing universe are, and always have been, infinite, alive, and home.
So it’s no wonder, not growing up in a culture that could give them words for such an experience, and help them honor it, men are sometimes confused about the meaning of size.
Civilization arose, I sometimes think, from the way dogs and children reward the effort to provide them with a stable, safe place where they can go wild with excitement.
We get little training in how to use the mind to curb the mind’s excesses.
I brooded over some ideas for a decade before I could understand how simple they were.
Once, when I announced what I had finally worked out, my listener gave me a quizzical look and said, “Everybody already knows that.”
Some days, these images seem like accidental byproducts of a peculiar process.
Other days, they feel like portals into the creative unconscious.
Perhaps they are both.
When she was 90, my mother said she always thought of herself as a girl of 16.
Old age is a difficult role to play.
I’ve gotten much better at looking old.
But I’m still learning how to act old.
As we age,
The horses we ride
May be older and slower,
But they have wider Wings.
Gerald Grow in 2011 at his first exhibition, with “Edge of Night” and “Sun Eye.”
The Squirrel’s Tooth
The most biting criticism of my art came from a squirrel.
She chewed into the box holding a prototype of A Struck Bell. After making a hole the size of your head,
she shredded her way through layers of cardboard and foam to the 30 x 40 inch canvas print of Emerging. There, instead of burrowing through it, she scraped a series of lines on the surface of the image.
While the squirrel was at work in the store-house, I gave the other print of Emerging to my niece, a radiation oncologist, for helping me through treatment for cancer. When I discovered how the squirrel had damaged the stored print, I put it on exhibit anyway and explained that I could order a fresh print for anyone who wanted it.
The more I looked at them, the more the fine bite-marks seemed to match the fine lines that make up the image. And what could be better — in an art that embraces surprise — than a surprise! The squirrel’s scribble came to seem like the sudden appearance of a newborn sun.
Here was Emerging, suspended in a state of scintillation at the boundary between order and chaos, somehow held by symmetry in an unexpected whole — a world of impossible complexity about to come together with a natural ease.
Then, just as Emerging balanced everything, like harmony in music — here comes the squirrel! — erupting like kettledrums out of an untended corner, spraying exuberance, churring that the future is also hers and her babies’ — not in the interactions of quarks or the space between galaxies, but here, in this mound of shredded art where she made her mark and made her home.
A few weeks later, a young woman fell in love with what the squirrel’s tooth had done to Emerging and took the squirrel’s art home with her, destined to hang in her future dental practice.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net. This is the final installment from Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light, an ebook available on Kindle and on Apple Books.