This has been a season of extremes, ones recorded in front and behind the lens of a camera. These extremes were precipitated by two questions, by two calls I had always wanted to answer but never had the courage to follow through. A contest. A writing workshop. I gathered up the courage to formulate two answers. I prepared two responses that would change my life.
The first question loomed at me from the pages of MORE magazine in a contest I had been wanting to enter for ten years but never did. This year I abandoned the fear and answered. So in this question, “What makes me beautiful, more now than ever?” I search for the truth of what beauty means to me. I write words, words that reflect the complexity and beauty in this season of my 50 something life:
The joys of motherhood, raising four beautiful children
The commitment to caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s living in my home
The pain and joy and moments entwined in both
Pain and sorrow, joy and laughter meshed together to create something beautiful, birthing something new out of parts that have been crushed.
I press send.
And that transmission begins a transformation. Transformation, initiated through words. 300 to be exact. 300 words about beauty, joy, grief, pain mixed with the healing of painting, boxing, writing to release all going on inside.
Sharing these words lands me in a studio for MORE. Exposing my life in a few vulnerable words now brings me exposed before the lens of a camera.
The photographer, Ari, encourages me out of me my nervousness. Before this moment, standing open before the camera, there was a lot of anticipation and excitement and preparation in the studio: meeting the editors and publisher of MORE, choosing and trying on designer clothes off the rack, sitting in front of the vanity, having perfect shades of makeup and nails applied, taming my wild mane with the stylist. I laugh when I ask Mark, the stylist, “What look are you going for?” He answers, “Tina Turner.” Perfect. Her look, her strength, her killer legs. Let’s go for it. Let’s go rolling on this river.
It was easy to present this look, but a little harder to project it. Slowly Ari coaxes life out of me, brought to life in a Valentino lace dress that I absolutely love and Steve Madden heels. Tousled hair, wind machines, polished make up and nails complete the metamorphosis. Uncomfortable at first I listen to the music playing, slowly relax. As I relax, I’m able to look straight into the lens of the camera.
That’s when I feel most myself. Looking right into the camera, praying the lens would reveal what is inside me, not only my beautiful transformed self that is giddy with the thrill of flaunting designer clothes, stumbling in stilettos, having my hair blown out and shaped in big rollers and makeup and nails flawlessly done. I’m in awe of the process of becoming outwardly beautiful, not only for me, but for the other three contest winners. I am aware from their smiles and their eyes that their beauty comes from within before we even exchange words. I’m moved by their stories, also brought here by words of beauty and pain and perseverance. I’m moved by the fast bond we share in sharing this dream experience together.
So I keep looking, looking, looking into the eye of the lens hoping it will reveal
the innermost me, altered by joy and sorrow, made stronger by both. Yet this outward transformation sparks a self-assured, more confident me, confident to stand tall in these 4-inch heels and truly, fully smile from the renewal I feel inside.
After all the excitement of the shoot, another photographer, Matt, takes a shot of me in my robe, in the background, waiting. “You look so wistful and pensive. What are you thinking about?” he asks.
“I’m trying to hold on to this moment,” I say.
A snapshot of a moment I will preserve.
Three months later, another snapshot. This time, on the other side of a camera lens. I stand 5000 miles away from the studio in Brooklyn on the shore of Katmai National Park in Alaska.
I am here because of my answer to the second call; another transmission of carefully chosen words has secured me a spot in a wilderness writing workshop near Kodiak. Two commercial jets, a prop plane, a bush plane, a 25 ft skiff, and a 4 seat float plane have transported me to a remote tide flat where a river meets the Shelikof Strait off the Alaskan coast. I am wearing three day old jeans, three-day-old hair, no makeup, and hip wading boots. Behind the lens of a camera, I am observing life as it unfolds in the wild, watching Alaskan brown bears in their in their natural habitat, no platform or fence between us.
A mother bear and cub are near each other. Resting, then cajoling with each other. The guide says the cub is three; he’s surprised he’s still there. By three they are usually on their own, kicked out. Why do they kick them out I ask. So they can continue mating.
I laugh at that ritual, considering the lengths it takes to mate with my husband of 32 years with teenagers and my mother in my home. Maybe I should kick them all out.
For two hours we watch the bears in their habitat. Beautiful, powerful, just going about their everyday business, wandering up and down the stream searching for food… a salmon dance. They eye movement in the stream, then rush over and crush the movement with their heavy paws, Playfully they grasp the salmon in those same life crushing paws and chomp it in their mouth, wild salmon ritually swimming upstream from the ocean, pushing against the current, traveling miles and miles to lay their eggs then die.
There is evidence of death everywhere here in this wilderness. But as I stand only 30 feet from this brown bear I am not afraid. I am only a bystander of this life behind the lens. Though only steps away from its powerful jaws I continue to watch. As I step across the soft silt sand of the riverbed, I look down at my feet. Even on the ground there is evidence of this cycle of life and death. There perfectly curled in the sand is the entire skeleton of a salmon. It reminds me of an old Indian carving or etching, the kind that fascinated me as a young girl growing up in the northwest. The Indians faced life and death and recorded it all in beautiful etchings…imprints of their daily life.
Here in my hip wader boots I record imprints of this life, preserving this experience, firing 600 photos in an attempt to capture the perfect shot of a bear in the wild. Even professional photographers have travelled for miles and for days to this very remote area to document a bear in the wild. A group of them are 100 feet in front us in camouflage, with tripods and huge 200 mm lenses. One sets his tripod on the bank. A bear plods by, only a few feet from the camera, close enough to send the pricey equipment into the water. Still and silent, we remain observers. The moment passes uneventfully. We exhale. Certainly the photographer is triumphant in capturing his images.
I laugh at the extremes we will go to capture the perfect moment… the beauty, the fierceness of a brown bear staring you in the face, when he cares nothing about you, only the salmon he wants for a snack.
Shivering in the dampness we continue to observe. Now the float plane is 500 yards away. Our guide must use his inflatable kayak to paddle out to the plane and coast it back to our position on the bank. The tide is quickly coming in.
We climb into the float plane shivering and damp, exhilarated at what we had just witnessed. We scroll through what we have just captured through our lenses, thrilled at the moments of beauty we have recorded of life raw, in the the wild.
Another day we take a walk along Seven Mile beach, again recording snapshots of raw beauty in the wilderness…the shapes and forms and colors of the rocks and driftwood, the rainbows across the bay, the bear tracks in the sand, the family of seals bobbing their heads above the surf, observing us on the shore.
At the end of the beach there lay a skeleton. 60 feet of bones, laying perfectly curled on the sand. At the moment we arrive the sun breaks through the clouds, shedding a different light on its curves, its reflection in the puddled water, still graceful and majestic.
A skeleton on the beach
A fin whale
The second largest whale in the ocean
Washed up on the shore intact
Flesh has rotted
Exposed bones resting on the shore in motion
Baleen that once sucked in its sustenance for life
Now scattered in chunks, in pieces on the ground
Vertebrae long and graceful winding on the ground
A silent keyboard once carried the sounds of the massive body echoing through the ocean
The skeleton, the shell of who I once was
Exposed over time and stress
And fighting the prolonging of life
Now emerges with a new song.
A new voice.
Beauty is formed from exposure to the elements of time, vulnerability, conditions we may or may not choose, as we adapt and move on, improvising and overcoming.
Exposure. Double exposure.
Both exhilarating. Both life changing. One manicured, made up, hair dolled up, blow dried, tousled by fans, dressed in Valentino and 4-inch heels. The other nails grimy, three- day-old hair blowing in the Alaskan wind, dressed in rain gear and hip waders.
Exposure unearths us beautiful, before and behind a lens, as we record the moments of life. Exposure renders us strong and powerful when we gather the courage to answer a call.