That was the caption of my dream two nights ago.
Yesterday, encouraged by my partner, some of the bigger ideas of my subconscious, like in my dream, began to surface.
I don’t know, yet, what they mean. Even in my dream, it was too bright. And I shielded my vision with my hand, gifted only with a glimpse. A silhouette. Of something big.
But this morning I woke up early, ventured into the tiny, closed-off, one-windowed room in the garage, and scouted out the direction of the sun and the corners of a room, that might better womb some creative writing and whim chasing.
This week I captioned some images and wrote a few paragraphs for the purpose of entry into a photography contest. You’ve seen these images before. But not the captions….
India, Nepal, Tibet: borders and names, created and defined, only by the intruders that needed them.
Hindu. Himalayan. Buddhism. Hindustani; dimensionless cultures boxed into, and under, the convenient labels of Religions & Regions; paragraph entries into encyclopedias that finally fit into the narrow minds of the Western explores that claimed their discoveries. Names, filtered through the deaf ears of ego, clumsily wearing the clothes of the Western alphabet, pronounced and spelled, to this day, incorrectly.
Masala means, “mixture of spices.” Curry is an British-invented word for a pre- mixed and packaged power of the spices the invader could never quite sort the individual ingredients out of, or back into. Correctly, anyway. Those three mystery ingredients are: Coriander, Cumin, Tumeric.
India, Nepal, Tibet.
Can we let it simply be.
A way of life.
And a masala of people?
As I was asking for permission from a family to photograph some young children playing within a bicycle school bus, these three boys pulled me and my camera deeper into the tent town (located near the Ganga river in Varanasi, U.P.) Inside this concrete section, they proudly presented their community gym; a tiny room full of heavy weights and furious fans to combat the equally furious Indian heat. The posters of Hindu gods, flexing their multiple sets of arms, alongside American WWF champs in strikingly similar costume, charmed me to no end. I returned later and handed out the photos. The next day, as a cycle school bus whipped around a corner, a known smile and muscled arm waved me onto the bus for a complimentary ride home. It was the highlight of my week.
Varanasi’s Ghat’s, or steps of stairs leading into the sacred Ganga-ji (often mispronounced, “Ganges”) is the one place in India where I can begin to comprehend the number 1.1 billion (the population of the country). However what astonishes me most about the staggering turn out to these regular river festivals, is the amazing fluidity and organization of what, in any other country or culture, would constitute utter chaos.
Westerns love to say, “thank you”; To which I often get the response, in South Asia, “but why? It is, of course, my duty.” In the shadows of the pictured homestay, I finally stepped out of my American shoes, and leaned that “content”; is hardly a bad, but blessed word. That to do, “one’s duty” is an honor, that needs no added expression of worth or appreciation outside of its simple doing. In the Dolpa of rural Nepal, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, at 15,500 feet, I found simple crops, simple structures, simple landscape, simple doing, simple being and simple understanding of what comprises simple beauty. And learned that just as essential as exploring, is breaking it down.
Image: Young Tibetan woman in the Dolpa of rural Nepal, grinding barley (the staple food) grown in the fields outside the clay house. Barley powder is often eaten dry. When sitting down to lunch in the fields, each person pulls our her own bag. Before taking a handful of the dry power to your mouth, however, it is custom that every person in the circle first eat a handful of your food. And so all bags are rotated, handfuls taken, a few playfully straying onto the faces of others, till your bag finally returns to your lap, before heading around the circle again.
Travel. Words. Images. Story.
In that order, I picked up the elements that have come to define my way of life, my personal culture if you will; or at least that which was left, as the common denominator, in the absence of any other society- or country-based.
Travel. Well that now, is too easy for me; my brier patch. Drop me off in Mumbai, but please not Manhattan. Let me homestay in a rural village where I know not a word of the language, but don’t make me navigate the foreign language of an extended family reunion. The path of the pilgrim graduates to elevated levels of challenge, and back home, congruently. No one promised it would be the same. Or that I would. It took me 7 years of of movement to teach me the profound beauty in the words “compromise” and “contentment,” which are only found in stillness.
Words. I’ve promised myself that I will write a book by the age of 52, the age of enlightenment by the Mayan calendar; the only age at which you are finally allowed to teach and speak as if you actually know something. In the meantime, I promise to practice. To practice stringing words together in ways that glimmer at truth. To compose sentences with notes of harmony. To pick up my pen as would an oil painter his brush. Thank god I am far from 52. For I have, only, so much more practicing to do.
Images. A later addition to my backpack, as evidenced by my work. I have something. But I need help. I’ve learned to photograph purely by experiential education. By trial and error. By tried and trusted intuition. By a few moments of bravery. But I have lost all my greatest shots. I don’t shoot a face unless I know his or her first name. I am afraid. I am afraid to shoot the shot without the story. Yes. To some degree this helps my angle. But I think by many degrees it also hides it. By my nature as a writer, I am an introvert. I hate hearing my voice. To express myself, I listen, then contemplate, compose and create a reflection of that which I truly feel is not adequate for the spoken word. Pictures, for me, are poetry. But in neither subject have I ever had any training. None. Blindly I both babble and search through my images for something that speaks better than I do. I know I’ve got it in me somewhere, warming, nesting, waiting for the necessary tension to build up, and crack.
Story. Oh story. And subject of the sentence that is my life mission statement. Even if my pictures are poor, I bet you can still feel it; my connection to, and profound love for, the story of my subject. The Buddhists have it right on Compassion; which, for me, is nothing less that the spark of recognition of you in me, me in you. Story is that link; the mirror that holds up the reflection. The more stories that can been narrated and seen through the first person, the more lifetimes we can live within this one, and the more momentum our species will have towards its highest evolution.
If I am one for whom travel is easy, connecting is fluid, stories feel safe to unravel, and compositions come together, well then I have found my “vocation,” where the term is defined (by Frederick Buechner) as, “the place where your great gladness and the world’s needs meet.” It only took me 7 or 8 years to gather the ingredients. Now, how to put them together….