Once upon a time I was friendly with a large extended family inhabiting the town where I served as a priest. This clan possessed a ranch house in the country where they gathered annually to swim, barbecue, nap and read. On one occasion many years ago, I spent a few days in their company and witnessed a moment that clings to me. One of the children got out of the pool while his mother squatted down and enfolded him in a large fluffy beach towel. Drying him in the sunshine she asked what he would like to eat for lunch. It was such a non-moment but there was a quality of undivided attentiveness that tugged at me with longing.
Generally, I don’t remember having such moments with my parents. It seems to me they were forever wanting us out from underfoot. They were delighted for me to be sequestered in my childhood bedroom reading novels. Banished when their adult friends came visiting and generally unimpressed with my witty teenage observations about life. For the longest time after that pool moment, I bathed in a warm bath of self-pity, immersing myself in the belief that I had been ignored and unappreciated as a child. That observation was a key that unlocked a room of discontent and resentment.
And then, unexpectedly, another observation occurred that shifted that view. I was watching an old home movie with early scenes from my parents’ marriage and sequences featuring my brother and myself as little children. Like a Time Machine the film transported me back to an instance where my mother was feeding my baby brother. He was encased in an old fashioned “high chair” (do those still exist?) and my Mother is sitting across from him and carefully spooning soft food into his mouth with complete absorption. He is clearly content and well cared for, and she is weary, young and beautiful. And just like that, a million images reentered my memory: my parents sitting on baseball field bleachers, even when I was unplayed. Recitals, plays, awards ceremonies—a waterfall of events they endured while I performed or commenced. There they were, making sure I had clothes, shoes that fit, piano lessons and an education. With one image another door was opened. A vantage point where I could see clearly their endless sacrifices, their pride in their children, reservoirs of love and dreams for our happiness.
Perhaps life really is what we look at, what we choose to remember. I suspect we often get stuck gazing at one particular frame; the image where we are unappreciated, unnoticed or thwarted. Gazing too long at such an image can enable us to lose our perspective. If we want to be a hopeful, optimistic people, it’s time to start paying attention to the abundance, not the deficit. What if we curated a splay of positive mental images we scan regularly like the photos on our phone? Whenever we feel lost, defeated or shut down we sort through those great moments of triumph, wonder or tenderness and just like that – our spirit begins to rise.
You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.
~ Ansel Adams