Absorbed and Concentrated
Starting photography, I found, was much like fishing. It started simple enough: a good experience, surpassed expectations, the organic feel–an intuitive practice revealing purpose and potential at once. If it (fishing, photography, or whatever) stirs latent proclivities, you won’t take long to become a cash-strapped student labored with particulars and new Facebook groups.
When that first mackerel doubled over my fishing pole, nearly catapulting my fishing cart off the pier, time stopped. My vision narrowed. Only this fish and I existed. A concretized-transcendent affair, at once serendipitous and designed. Rapturing. Rapturing, I say again so you will get how singularly absorbed and concentrated I was.
In that moment, I knew why the fight lengthened seconds to minutes. The very meaning of life was drawn out, the struggle for it, the conflict of it. One life to sustain another. The fight was grandiose and cosmic. At the same time, though, the fish’s role, my role, we were another mortal rehearsal left threadbare by eons of echoed types lingering scant and still, nebulous and indistinguishable, like the middle digit of pi.
That connection, the fish and me, testified to the specific phoenix rising again and again. The distinction of beauty, how one flower dips from the same well as all other flowers, is the same inexhaustibility and specificity of God. The fish leaving this world was every bit as extra-ordinary as how the fish was. The routine exchange between bee and coneflower: re-markable. You must be born anew, Jesus said to Nicodemus. On the third day he rose again, says our creed. Again. Repetition. Jesus dying and rising, again and again, the singularity of beauty re-cited without exhaustion. And that is why a re-surrected life is the most beautiful because it has re-emerged from the well of beauty.
Maybe Lactantius or maybe someone else of no significance wrote:
There is a fountain in the middle, which they call by the name of ‘living;’ it is clear, gentle, and abounding with sweet waters, which bursting forth once during the space of each month, twelve times irrigates all the grove with waters. Here a species of tree, rising with lofty stem, bears mellow fruits not about to fall on the ground. This grove, these woods, a single bird, the phoenix, inhabits, -- single, but it [sic] lives reproduced by its own death.
I had a philosophy professor once who said fishing was stupid. “Can you imagine,” he said, “spending the entire day trying to trick a dumb animal.” And you can kind of see his point. Why not just drive to the grocery store? The time you save, I think he wanted to say, could be spent reading Hegel or Heidegger. But what he didn’t understand was the humanness of fishing, the sort of Darwinian nexus where humanity is both a governor of creation and a subject. Most people don’t leave the grocery store feeling more human. I mean, sure, the grocery store is a modern expression of that interdependence thanks to farmers and ranchers. But the gratitude we rightfully express to our farmers and ranchers ironically separates us from the dust we are.
Being shocked by our humanness, again and again, “My God, I am,” our having been created, existence rather than nothing; “you are,” beauty wants to scream, “you didn’t have to be.” Every day resuscitates the cosmos, every mirror, the face of God. By the grace of God I am, said Paul.
The flowers are, the bee is; beauty re-turned; God re-mains; our lives, our vocations are re-called. Why do I photograph flowers, again and again? Anamnesis. It is where I first saw beauty recycled. The garden flowers of paradise, the garden flowers at the tomb, the garden flowers outside my window, and the flowers at the eschaton, grammatically speaking, are homonyms: they share the same type but retain their own eminence. Each photograph retrieved what was, is, and will be again. Creation re-members itself, unfolds itself over and over as a cloud billows through a sky. Beauty, this kind of beauty, is artistry and the artisan: one transcendent, another incarnate, both-one.
When she has now accomplished the thousand years of her life, and length of days has rendered her burdensome, in order that she may renew the age which has glided by, the fates pressing her, she flees from the beloved couch of the accustomed grove. And when she has left the sacred places through a desire of being born again, then she seeks this world, where death reigns…In the meantime, her body, destroyed by death, which proves the source of life, is hot, and the heat itself produces a flame; and it conceives fire afar off from the light of heaven it blazes, and is dissolved into burnt ashes. And these ashes collected in death it fuses, as it were, into a mass, and has an effect resembling seed…After this it is formed again, such as its figure was before.
I went on a historical tour of northern England and southern Scotland as an undergraduate. The history professor leading the tour didn’t forbid cameras on the trip but he encouraged us to leave them behind. And you can kind of see his point. He felt like putting a camera between you and your surroundings only created distance from the very thing you traveled to experience. “You can be here,” I remember him saying, “without actually being here.”
His point was nearly unassailable. Isn’t it so stereotypical to imagine the tourist snapping photo after photo? Documenting the travel rather than actually traveling. But for the photographer, I would argue, looking through the lens of a camera makes everything real. Your eyes adjust to seeing not just the plain sight but the order that unfolds the chaos. Or, as Berenice Abbott put it, “Photography helps people to see.”
What I mean by that, I guess, is not exactly the marshmellowy swirl of mindfulness, but mindfulness’ tattooed, leatherjacket-wearing brothers, absorbed and concentrated. Pierce the film of sight and time.
Death is Venus to her; her only pleasure is death: that she may be born, she desires previously to die. She is an offspring to herself, her own father and heir, her own nurse, and always a foster-child to herself. She is herself indeed, but not the same, since she is herself, and not herself, having gained eternal life by the blessing of death.
I want to dispense sagacious advice. I’m mean it’s really tempting, seductive-like to be that winsome fellow authoring quotable memes. Then I think I’d be someone important. But I’m not that kind of writer. And you’re not that kind of reader. Somewhere, nearby the bees pollenating flowers and butterflies leaving wee butterfly eggs, there we are, a digit. Maybe you’re a five; maybe I’m a seven. I hope I’m a seven—I like that number. But it doesn’t really matter. I’m not really that important. And you, whatever digit you are, you’re pretty insignificant too. We’re somewhere in the middle of pi, where everyone has already stopped counting.
There in the middle, all we do is hold together the forever behind and the eternal ahead. Without this inconsequential existence, this type of being you and I share, the most distant light, that one pixel glowing, testifying to the enormity of space and time, flickers out. Without us, the sutures binding creation burst. Unnoticed beauty is the palm of God’s hand opening and closing, and we're God's fingers.