I have started reading a startling book called “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach. Although by its design and layout it seems quite an unassuming volume, I find myself written all over the pages, and from that standpoint, I call it startling. Early in the book, Brach speaks about the “Trance of Unworthiness” – a seemingly Western disease of feeling “there is something wrong with me”. However, by her own argument, in quoting Mother Teresa’s observation that the greatest illness of our times is the “feeling of not belonging”, it would seem that this feeling is more universal.
Something that intrigued me in Brach’s discussion is the concept of how we feel we are always lacking and needing “something” to complete us – a fear and need that is very much fed upon by our consumerist society – such that when we actually achieve a moment of relative satisfaction with what we have, it is quickly replaced by the fear of how we could lose it, how we could sustain it, and how we could get more of it. Brach talks about being in a beautiful landscape, but instead of enjoying the wonder of what is, we are subsumed by the fear that our camera is out of film, or the batteries are dead, and that we cannot keep or capture this “perfect moment” – not trusting that a piece of our soul holds that moment forever.
Brach’s analogy of the camera running out of film captured my imagination at once. In my teens, growing up in Sydney, Australia, I was always one for travelling everywhere on public transit, wandering around the city, on my way to or from the latest movie that was to be a temporary microcosm of safe imagination. As I did so, I watched people. At that time, most tourists to our city came from Japan, and it was a common sight to see bus tours with visitors trooping on and off the bus at each stop on their route, watching – always watching – through the lens of their cameras, and especially their video cameras. I remember at the time, being only familiar with the basic Kodak camera popular with my family, and pretty much a stranger to “moving pictures” other than the ones I saw at the cinema, I thought how the visitors missed so much, always looking through the lens of their cameras, and never with their own eyes. I remember thinking how everything must look different through a camera, and wondered – would everything suddenly open up into a glorious uninhibited vista, if they lifted their eyes from the viewfinder and saw what the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge truly looked like, and not just a small rectangular sample of it?
Some thirty years later, with my burgeoning interest in photography, I have begun to have a new kind of habitual dream. In these dreams, I will be travelling somewhere marvellous, somewhere continents away from where I live now, seeing amazing new vistas as well as the architectural delights that have secretly interested me – spires, domes, arches: with patterns tessellating away from me into broad blue skies – always struck by a (I am sure) never-to-be-repeated shift in atmosphere and light, as the sun breaks through the clouds, or highlights some breathtaking part of that magnificence.
In those dreams, I carry my new travelling companions with me – a digital SLR camera, with a compact digital camera as a backup. Every time I see a remarkable vista, I reach for my camera, look through the viewfinder with the hope of capturing that experience for posterity on digital film. However, as Brach says, I find in these habitual dreams that the batteries of my camera die, the lenses fog, or the camera mechanism somehow whirs and dies, and I glimpse the vista – the heart of my desired experience – passing by as I fumble with the camera and try to make it work.
So often we reach for an experience and try to capture it, and feel a small loss when we fail. I see these dreams as a very real statement of my wish to grasp at something of happiness and beauty – something that I can hold when my days feel dark or dull – something that can soothe the ache that I have “lost” something needed for my happiness.
Of course, we never truly lose these objects of desire. Around 1993, I went on a road trip with my first husband from Melbourne to Adelaide in Australia. I remember feeling very sad that the film from one leg of the journey was accidentally exposed, and all the pictures lost. What was it that I was trying to hold on to in that piece of lost film? My marriage was already shaky and faltering, likely just as much the result of a poor match as my inherent mental instability of the time. I remember in the shaky mental camera of my mind, grey stratus looming over a chilly coastline, seeing the city of Portland in the dim morning and visiting a small garden there – I think there were roses, hanging on to the last hopes of summer. We visited a blue lake in the country, the waters charged a startling blue-green by the minerals suspended in it, and the surrounding country like a series of moon craters struggling to be healed by scrubby bush. It was probably an old mining district. Later, we drove along dark coastlines, ate fish and chips, and stayed in one of several small, but pleasant 3 star motels. We travelled through wine country – green and sunlit dappled in places like those places of memory, and at other times, dull grey and green under the ever-present cloud. These pictures could not have been captured any more adequately by my cheap camera, the restrictions of the film, and my poor knowledge of photography, than it could by the emulsion of memory.
But still, we struggle – to grasp a moment of peace, beauty, fulfillment or accomplishment – to hold onto that moment when it arrives, elusive, so afraid that it will be taken away from us forever. As the mind ages too, even with the discipline of use and practice, we begin to forget things, to lose things, to hold things more tentatively, aware that with the fragility of memory, we can lose them.
That’s what these recurring dreams represent, a grasping to hold something of beauty, of substance – to capture it in a way that I will never lose it, even when the vagaries of time and memory fail me. These photographs are inoculations against fear and loss. When we take photos of loved ones, we hope in some way to capture that person, not realizing that there can be no true way of imprinting that person’s soul on film. What’s more, we don’t realize that nothing is truly lost, and that even a blurry moving picture, broken in memory, is still a fragment of time that is beautiful.
Perhaps I will know this fear has run its course, when in such a dream, I find the camera to be jammed and I just put it away, and soak up the experience with my imperfect, but ever-present soul.
Perhaps when we can be content in stillness, in what is happening around us and inside us, however sunny or clouded, we can be sure that we have arrived.