Facing the Photographer
A local friend, a charming and whimsical artist who has a gallery in town and a garden shop that is like a glimpse of fairyland; a beautiful storyteller and peace activist who has planted her hillsides with olive trees--she asked me one morning at the post office if I would consent to take part in her Goddess project.
Sounded pretty lofty. She explained that what she envisioned was a lot of photographs of local women. Artists, grandmothers, midwives, writers, firefighters, activists. A whole spectrum of faces. She had asked one of the most insightful local photographers to create the photos. Would I let him take mine?
I said yes, though within my heart I knew this little moment would bring up all sorts of inner turmoil.
Yesterday I walked to the pink house with the laughing Buddha in the planter box. The bright quince was in full bloom, a burning bush if ever I'd seen one.
He met me at the door. The storms had abated a bit, but I was carrying my Sistine Chapel umbrella, full of voluptuous nudes on a golden background. It cheers me up, come the weeks of winter storm. I walked past his kitchen alcove, where his wife and a friend were chatting, and into the room with the silver reflective screens and the window looking out to the mountains.
Sit down, said he, indicating the lovely, pale woven rug on the floor. I did.
Now, the whole concept of "Goddesses" had troubled me a bit--I am no goddess, nor was meant to be--and I wasn't all that certain of what the intent here might be. He'd asked, when we spoke on the phone, what characteristic item might I be holding. My answer was immediate: a pen. I always have a pen in my hand, and two or three clipped to my shirt, just in case I need to write something down--some flash of poetry, some thought. He'd said he kind of wanted to focus on hands.
I was curious about the list of women--about 30 of us--and asked to see it. He handed it over, and they were certainly all known to me: the midwife who cradled my children into the world, the artist in glass who is one of my favorite board members--the one who doesn't mind my hula hooping at important events; teachers, artists. Quite an exalted company.
The photographer, far from carefully arranging a pose, liked to snap a zillion shots while talking. Did I ever relax? No. I'm pretty sure in my background is some tribal memory of soul stealing through photographs. The only photos of myself I have really loved since childhood were taken by people who loved me. The photographer, gentle, whimsical, and snapping his shots, had no reason to love me. Did not know me, save at a distance. We got through the half hour and finally he crowed "That's it! I've got it!" and showed me the photo, in which I have a puckish smile and my hands near my face (must get those hands in).
"Hmm. I look a lot like my dear mother. Well, I loved her."
What I longed to say, what raged in my vain heart, was "when did I stop being twenty? Where have the years flown?" It is the same question I ask my mirror some mornings, as I meet my eyes--nice eyes, sometimes gray, sometimes bright turquoise, depending upon..I don't know what--and the crinkles by them, and the high cheekbones, and the nose I never quite liked even when I was little, and the myriad small lines, and the serious mouth. The photographer likes smiles. If I were to have faced his camera on my terms I would have stared it down, like the old photos of my great grandparents: a steady stare, a serious confrontation. This is who I am, and what of it?
As I grow older, and see the lines not only of my mother's face in her last years, but of her mother before her, a woman I never met but whose gaze I meet in some of my photos, I am coming to terms with...I don't know quite what. Time, vanity, the loss of youth. I have good bones, and when I reach 80 or so I plan to try to carry off the "she was a beauty in her youth" role. But this in between stage is as awkward as my teen years were. I just don't quite recognize that woman, though she has an elfin smile still, and a wicked gleam in her eyes. I don't recognize all those lines, that softening flesh.
I do recognize my hands--thin, inkstained, with broken nails from work and gardening. They serve me very well still.
After the photographs I asked to meet the birds--the photographer has some bright and lovely birds in an alcove. His wife cautioned me not to touch them, assuring me they'd bite. I went in anyway, and he handed me a bird he said was a parakeet--the largest of that sort. Orange and yellow and black and green, with a salmon ringed eye and a quizzical tilt to his head. The bird and I exchanged looks and murmurs, and the other birds gathered and watched. Pure delight. I'm sure the birds never bother to worry about how they look, or how they are aging. These ones fly and climb and murmur.
I'm trying to learn their aplomb, their joy.