What’s Happened To Me?

For those of you who’ve been orbiting this adventure and catching a few FB posts, it may not yet be clear what exactly it is, that I’ve been up to. The same, in a sense, goes for me. 😉 The path hasn’t always been clear but I’ve been following one, nonetheless, that takes me back to a time in my life when I worked as a photojournalist. It’s essentially to regain a sense of being in the world that I, for some reason or another, let slip away. This is why you’ve seen FB posts of photojournalists, whom I’ve met over the last couple of years, doing amazing and incredible work all around the world.

Anyway, this week, I happened across a few articles that I wrote some eleven years ago while living in Switzerland that, quite astonishingly, remind me of just how long I’ve been searching to “regain the spirit.” I kind of throw myself under the bus with this piece entitled, “What’s happened to me?” but here goes.  At the time of writing, I was regularly contributing to a parenting magazine called “The New Stork Times” (yes, you read that correctly). It’s not going to make it into the pages of f/16 but it’s entirely relevant and I feel compelled to post it. 

Here’s a quote for ya, “Somewhere, at some time, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading”.  I said that, not yesterday but over a decade ago and in the context of this journey, that has become f/16, it gives me goosebumps (and a bit of a kick in the pants). If you enjoy it, I may dig up a few more…..

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

From the September 2003 issue of The New Stork Times:

Where am I? I’m not talking about the physical surroundings, I’m talking about me, the person inside a body that is simultaneously taking on house, kids, kindergarten, playgroup, extracurricular activities, marriage etc. Remember those days when you were convinced that all the experience you were gaining pre-marriage, pre-kids, was going to get you through the tough stuff later on? That the life-enriching smorgasbord of a world that you were feasting upon was going to make you one heck of an interesting person and a kick-ass Mom? Then the family whirlpool begins: you’re adhering to feeding times, nap times, completely preoccupied by the hours of sleep they’re getting and the one’s you’re not. Life is eddying about you while you lay sprawled over the plug hold clinging to a personality that’s being sucked down the drain.

“So what do you guys do — I mean in your spare time?”

My husband and I were on our first weekend away without our kids. I hadn’t been away since I was nine months pregnant with three year old Jemima. An American dinner guest at the wedding we were attending in Lugano, was curious about our life in Switzerland.

“Like, what are your hobbies?”

My mind went blank. Surely, I thought I could think of something to say. I heard myself mutter. “We have kids. Umm, two. They’re young…five and two.”

He nodded understandingly but my answer registered on his face as being quite insufficient.

Surprisingly, to me, my reply was enlightening as I struggled to think of something I, myself, enjoyed. I started to feel like a high school graduate applying for my first ‘real job’ with an embellished Curriculum Vitae. Hobbies, hmmm, well, I like to read (not a lie, I’ve gone through seven different books just this week, who has to mention the author’s were Dr. Seuss, A.A. Milne and Lewis Caroll. I love travel (I live in a foreign country doesn’t that speak for itself?) Skiing. (Haven’t skied upright without a kid between my legs for five years but have mastered this backbreaking technique). Photography (drawers full of snaps of my kids that will some day be put in an album). Oh yeah, and let’s not forget —learning about other cultures — even if it is an every day survival tactic living here in Switzerland.

The guest went on to talk about his horseback riding experiences and I went into hyper self-analysis.

What’s happened to me? My kids are at an age when it’s getting easier to do things. The routine is changing. They’re capable of so much  more and I, as a Mom have to pick up the ball and move into new territory, so to speak.

I used to dread even the thought of a holiday. Honestly, with all the challenges of adapting to a new country with small children in tow, why would I want to take this show on the road and go to yet another new place? I’d much rather stick to my house and work at the somewhat fragile roots I’ve planted. I wasn’t proud of this attitude but quite frankly, it’s where I was at.

But, now I realize things have got to change. This is when it should all kick in — where we draw upon life as it was rather than gripe over how much life has changed since having kids. Somewhere, at sometime, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading.

Am I getting too philosophical? I’m up late. It’s when I think best. It’s when I think! I’ve taken to enjoying this time after all have gone to sleep and the house is quiet. I absolutely, with all my heart appreciate a silent house. Original thoughts fight for their rights inside my head. As I gradually concede the worries of the day, flow away. I’m tempted to veg, to turn on the TV and not think too seriously. Contemplating my options. BBC, CNN..a German flick to see what little bit of the language I can now actually pick up, I eventually put down the remote.

I think about what I remember of family life as a kid. Mostly, I remember the holidays. The day to day stuff is mostly a blur but the family activity is the manna that enlivens my memory. Living in a new country is, in a sense (to steal a phrase), like being a perpetual tourist*. If only we could adopt that curious, fresh perspective and apply it to every day; convey that sense of trying something new to our kids without focusing only on our limitations. Somewhere within all of that emerges someone I’m familiar with; someone who isn’t doing all the things she once did but who has regained the spirit that made her want to do them in the first place.

*”Perpetual tourist” is term used by Paul Bilton in his book of the same name, ‘The Perpetual Tourist‘ — published by Bergli Books

 My book on Swiss Culture: Culture Smart: Switzerland

f/16

9603907-camera-lensf/16, is a memoir. It began as a book about women who are photojournalists but evolved, out of necessity and the encouragement of some incredible people, into a narrative that also includes me. And, so too has the title evolved. f/16 is a setting on a camera’s aperture. There’s something known as the “sunny f/16 rule” that assists with correct exposure of difficult subjects. This aperture setting also allows for increased depth in an image. f/16 also represents the sixteen women who are photojournalists whom I spoke to over the course of a couple of years. They are the pillars of this book, holding their focus on the world while I, in a sense, had to learn to read the light, all over again. It took me awhile to figure out my own approach to writing about women in the world (the photographers and those photographed), but I have. Today, I thought I’d share the prologue. Just days before the idea for this book began to take hold, this is what was going on:

Prologue

Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

box 3With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me in a flack jacket flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

Please also visit the book’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatItMeantToMeMemoir?ref=hl