My daughter was the texture in my life. Our relationship was a rocky one: gravelly and spongy, sticky and slippery, blistering and subdued, grating and yet grooving. She could make me bristle with rage; she could make me sparkle, percolating with pride. She dented me. And she melted my heart to oozy mush when she smiled at me, her eyelids iridescent with smoky pearl shadow.
When my daughter died my grief was heavy frozen concrete. For a long while, I gathered up feathery flea-bits of memories from the dark depths of sorrow. There was no sense to be found. Only things. The stuff she left behind. Jagged shards, shiny trinkets, and fuzzy stuffed things. What they looked like, what they felt like, and how they made me feel. It’s the texture of life that still keeps me engaged. Believing there’s peace and beauty yet to be discovered, I watch the sky for the next super moon, to witness its light kissing the world below.
When I first started concocting these landscapes, I photographed and rearranged only natural elements. Clouds, sand, rock, moon, trees, water…. But soon I began adding photos of not-so-natural things with intriguing textures that reflected the light in appealing ways. The sky in this scene is taken from the inside of a glass goblet I received as a wedding gift almost half a century ago. The glass reminded me of falling rain or tears, and looking through to the bottom where the stem of the glass is attached, I found an eclipsed sun. Over the sky I added a layer of wavy reflections of young trees from around my pond, turning them upside down to upright them, making them grow anew from a metal lattice grill. The grill panel was photographed years ago when I visited the Old Melbourne Jail, one of Australia’s oldest surviving structures. I wanted to capture something from the original building. How many prisoners had noticed that same grillwork on the wall near the hanging place, I wondered?
At the very bottom of the scene there is a shallow stretch of Cayuga Lake shoreline from a point in Ithaca’s Stewart Park where, decades ago, swans used to swim. The swans are history now. Everything here is history or has a history. Marrying these images together into a fabricated world is, for me, like holding the past, like bringing it back to life. If I were to give names to all my Altered Horizons, I would call this one ‘Resurrected’ since so many of the elements I’ve toyed with here were dragged up from the depths of my closets and files and memories— and given new life.
When my life was upended by loss, I had to redefine myself and re-find my footing in the world. For a long time it took every bit of my energy just to keep myself right-side up. But, although my equilibrium was shattered, I discovered a strange fascination in playing with the up-rightness and stability of everything else around me. In my head, I flipped my surroundings upside down, inside out and helter-skelter, imagining new microenvironments. In a desperate attempt to rebuild stability and balance in my own life, I found myself concocting uncanny otherworldly landscapes.
A landscape, in its bare bones, consists of a sky that may or may not include a sun or a moon, and a ground that may be land or a body of water. The horizon line is the place where the sky meets the earth or touches the sea. It’s the horizon that intrigues me most because that’s the place in-between, where change happens, where all sorts of things are possible. The horizon is the farthest the eye can see. It is the limit or range of one’s experience, knowledge, or interest. The horizon also refers to the foreseeable future. Which is something I doggedly try to control these days.
Digital photography and Photoshop make it easy to indulge in this crazed fabricating of other worlds. It’s all based on reality as I photograph mostly natural elements with intriguing textures. Dropping the photos into Photoshop, I turn trees on their sides to become foregrounds. Oceans become skies. The sun is inverted into a black hole. A rock turns into the moon and an avocado becomes the sun. The tools in Photoshop allow me to invert foregrounds and backgrounds, and invent artificial horizons for these contrived landscapes.
Towards the end of designing each new scene, I build a frame around it. This part of the process is so satisfying. Therapeutic even. It’s like building a nest and carefully wrapping the whole thing up to contain it. To keep it cozy. And secure.
I call these Altered Horizons. Because everything in my life has been altered, changed to some different reality. Not by choice. But in these landscapes I can choose and control—A Someplace. A No-Place—Maybe you would say this is a fool’s-eye view of the world.
Online grief counselors say, “Embrace your pain,” “Face the loss,” … “Make friends with the heartache.” Meanwhile, today a friend politely pointed out, “There are different patterns to get over the loss of someone” and “You need to stop all this grieving and be happy.”
I am kind of happy. Life is good, except for my daughter dying. Until this afternoon I had no idea I was particularly unhappy or stuck, lost in a forest of grief.
I see grief as a bridge or tunnel connecting each sorrow forward to peace. Grief is a journey. Maybe a long journey, as some days the tunnel seems endless. One has to walk through the tunnel, carrying the pain like it’s a small child who needs to be rocked to sleep. The ache awakens at times. Sometimes suddenly. You stumble backwards. You whimper. You wail. Then regain your footing and continue the rhythm of your step. And as you traipse on, you notice there are countless minuscule cracks of light and color in the tunnel, where joy seeps through.
If you don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, your hope grows more slowly as you learn to maneuver in the darkness. But you love that tunnel, even only dimly lit, because it is still your connection to peace.
In difficult times, what has your connection to peace been?
There wasn’t enough time to walk in the woods near my mother’s house before lunch. And it was cloudy. A chance of rain. Desperate to try out my newly repaired camera, I drove my little Prius up October Mountain. Car-hiking.
The road narrowed as I drove. Up. Into dark woods, past quiet campgrounds all but abandoned now that summer was over. There was supposed to be a lake somewhere. I followed the road, zigzagging up and down, to where the trees were backlit with light. Water. Found.
Returning to the car after taking my fill of photos, I saw there were three roads, not simply the one I’d doggedly pressed ahead on in search of the lake. The road I headed out on soon became so pitted with potholes that the Prius, whose front bumper barely clears the ground by three inches, bounced like a ship in a stormy sea. Its belly scraped bottom at each depression. I had to make a twelve-point U-turn to come back to where the three roads met. And then everything looked different. One road was paved. Had I taken the paved road?
This was turning into an adventure. I plugged in the GPS, setting it for my mother’s house. It beeped and blinked red question marks as I continued along the second road, looking for something familiar. The road roughened and grew rockier, and finally petered off into a muddy trail. Another twelve-point turn, and I retraced my path to test the third road.
My mother would be worried. “I’ll be back in an hour-and-a-half and then we’ll have lunch,” she’d said. It was now lunchtime. I needed a bathroom. The grating of the Prius’s bottom was grinding into a headache. Enough of this driving endlessly around the mountain. I wanted to be back home, in my sweet bed with the cozy pillows and new matelassé stitched quilt. Maybe it was time to call 9-1-1. But then I’d have to say I was lost, because you can’t phone 9-1-1 to tell them you’re simply disoriented.
Lost. I’m careful about how I use that word. It’s such a sad word: A long-lost forgotten friend. A lost dog. Lost opportunities. ‘Lost’ sounds so hopeless: A lost soul. Love lost. To me ‘lost’ means irretrievable, consigned to oblivion. Gone. But six years ago I did not lose my father; he shows up whenever I spend a dollar. My daughter who died is not lost; she was with me when I photographed the lake at October Mountain. Besides, I had half a tank of gas and a GPS. I was not lost.
Finally, after I retried each of the three roads, the GPS found a signal and led me back. “I got lost,” was the first thing I told my mother.
What does ‘lost’ mean to you? What is not lost?