photo walk 6.29.2014 (central square, cambridge)

I slept poorly last night, waking around 1 a.m. and nearly frantic with wakefulness. These periods of bad sleep rattle me, since they have the unfair power to derail my unforgiving lifestyle. I took another melatonin and slept heavily until after 8. When I dragged myself out of bed it was like pulling my mind up through jelly or mud; everything was resistance itself. Insomnia and bad sleep come in bouts and I do what I can with melatonin and hot milk toddies and no electronics an hour before bedtime, but still: sleep fractures like brittle bones, and I couldn’t tell you why.

After making breakfast and then lunch (to eat later) in the main house, I came back to the apartment and did homework, felt virtuous staring down at my notes, color-coded. I ate lunch and continued reading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, which had me gripping my own mouth in horror as I read. It’s that good, that real, that immediate; I wish I could say I hated it, that it rang false or felt overdone or was banal and facile. But it’s not. It’s terrifying and too real and got into my guts so quickly, it’s only with great effort that I put it down and went for a walk.

I took one of the cameras out with me. I thought I’d start photographing again. As I walked toward Central Square and passed by the church just off Mass Ave, I wanted to ask the men sitting on the benches by the boulevard if I could take their picture. I don’t want to literally take a picture, which seems like a sly form of theft. I remember how irate and sometimes violated I felt having my picture taken without permission in Korea. As if I stood, insensate, on a stage with props for other people to literally objectify. I don’t want to be that kind of photographer. As I stood hesitating on the street, however, I realized that to do the opposite, to not consume an uninvolved subject with a false sense of ownership, requires me to be involved. I saw I would have to go up to these men and introduce myself. Ask their names. Maybe share a cigarette with them. And then, maybe, after days, I could photograph them. Not just take their picture, but create something. Make a photograph. I’d have to be present, though, and have invested something so that they were not simply objects to be shot and recorded. And I was afraid of putting myself in that position. I would have to engage, which means I would have to open myself and be vulnerable.

I stood for maybe ten minutes on the sidewalk, thinking about this. The three men who had been sitting on the bench got up and ambled away. I stayed on the sidewalk, realizing I was afraid to reach out. I thought about my fear and the isolation it keeps me in (and the photographs it keeps me from making) while I turned the other direction and walked toward Central Square.

Photography has a vocabulary. There’s a style, a way of framing; I can’t say I’m very fluent. But I’ve gotten rustier in the year or more it’s been since I picked up a camera with seriousness. I can’t say what took me away in the first place. Retreat last summer, that took me away. Class and other obligations in the fall, that took me away. The huge stifling pressure of change: that took me away. I felt stuttered and stiff on the street today. I saw things and I didn’t know how to engage them, how to talk with them so that what happened with the camera was a conversation and not just a dead-end caption.

I ended up going grocery shopping. Ridiculously, I wandered up and down the aisles at HMart, the local Korean supermarket, with my camera banging against my hip and eavesdropping on Korean conversations and missing my other language and home. I bought some lunchbox storage containers, since I take my lunch to school, and a kettle for the altar. I’m one of those people who refuses to offer water from anything but a “clean” source. It’s always made me uncomfortable to fill an offering bowl straight from a faucet.

When I walked out the back of HMart, I went back to Mass Ave using a little covered walkway between the buildings. A young man was painting some graffiti on the wall. It’s not vandalism. The entire wall is like a public canvas, and hundreds of individuals illustrations layer up on each other the length of the passageway. I asked the young man if it was legal to do this, what the rules were, and so on. He said he didn’t know. He said no one ever hassled him, so he didn’t know what would get someone in trouble. He noticed my camera and asked if I was a photographer.

I said yes; I don’t know why. Because it’s an aspiration? Because why not–you’re a photographer if you call yourself one, an artist if you make art, and in some real way only you get to decide that for yourself. (Whether you’re a good artist, though…) I asked his name. I introduced myself. He gave me his card, and I said thank you, and then I walked away and took a shot of him putting the finishing touches on a starfish, one of several. His name was Morris.

At the other end of the passageway was an old man in a wheelchair. I thought, I’d like to make a portrait; and so I took a deep breath, walked up to him, and introduced myself. Hi, my name is Seonjoon. What’s your name? He responded to this question with the word “Hamaguchi,” and I couldn’t tell you if that was his name or an answer to the question he heard, but not the question I asked. He didn’t seem entirely present, although he wasn’t entirely absent, either. I asked if I could take his portrait. He said, “I don’t see why not…” So I did. Two frames. I shook his hand again and said I’d see him around, which I probably will. I’m beginning to recognize the people who wait around the bus stops and crowd the boulevard benches. Co-inhabitants of Central Square. I also saw how the better-dressed members of this neighborhood avert their eyes from the people sitting on the benches and the low brick walls, self-consciously disengaged. It was my own disengagement that I came up against when I realized I was paralyzed by a fear of crossing some invisible line with the three men on the bench earlier. It’s there, though, all the same.

I came home and shot four frames of the empty, dim apartment. Main room, bedroom, kitchen filled with glancing light. I have a book review to finish (funny that I can type out three times as many words in a quarter of the time here than I can with that review…) and more French to do. I need to get the review off my plate so I can move onto an application for a translation job, which I need to start so that I can get back to reviewing Sanskrit among French. And maybe tonight will be unbroken and peaceful, a fuzzed frame of indistinct contours, unbroken until the light is already over the horizon tomorrow morning.

All the photographs I shot today were with 35 mm film, the real deal, otherwise I would have posted anything that turned out.

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Three, with photograph

Lotus leaf and water1

 

1.

Faith coined to burn us out

Julia Cohen, Practice by Fire and Doubt

Stillness. A cold hand in your chest at the fraying edge of day. A hand plunged then splayed, unearthly chill, between your hot organs and prickled naked skin. Raking over and over your faith, fragile as ribs.

Faith is a body, faith is a currency, bought and sold, exchanged for goods, lost in a pocket, rubbed to disfigurement, buried under ash for centuries then rediscovered, an artifact, by a curious scholar in a brimmed hat with a bandana over her mouth, which is round as an O under the thin mass-produced cloth. Faith is fondled, faith is cheapened, faith matures too early and dies too soon, burned out on endless nights of endless prayers and votives and palpitating catechisms.

Always with this, before it and with it and after it: stillness. Cold and glassy-quiet, thick like liquid silver. No assurance of salvation on its far side, no steady insistence of right and wrong. It might be a fire burning black-on-black, void of utterable language. It moves like an ocean meeting itself coming and going.

 

2.

and we’ve been taught
the mouth of the world opens

Luisa A. Igloria, That everything has a use beyond its given life

Solar flares. A dancer, arms outreached, waist wilting
elegantly; an empty socket in the hip’s girdle.

A religion of want. Of labial vowels, liturgies
of awful truths. Heterodox canticles measured out
by decay. Withered stems releasing their burdens
to an unseen world.

Heliospheres of joy, antiphons of silence. Nuclei,
negative space. Cenotaph and matrix. The single line
reaching everywhere.

A bridge. A cathedral’s ribbed vault.
The splaying knuckles of my hand.
A curtain, parted.

 

3.

We must risk delight.

Jack Gilbert, A Brief for the Defense

Because delight is a little white boat
Because risk is a splintered seat
Because delight is a glistening applause
Because risk is a wind in the leaves
Because delight is the small flame
in the altar of the eyes
Because risk is the god of our beating breath
Because delight is the yellow star of a crocus
Because risk is the radius of winter
Because delight is a name I know
Because risk is a body I love

 

 

Image courtesy of DS

in progress

Dry Lotus (42)

 

Inscribe. Revise. Rub out but can’t erase. Remark. Earmark: piercing. Empty, collapsed donuts, fallen tunnels in time, entry with a needle, exit with a decision. Hypoallergenic, but never met a metal that didn’t cause an irritation, never met a year that didn’t leave another mark. Incise, impress. Keloidal bas relief, elastin artifice. The skin, the flesh, the body. The corpus in progress.
 
 
Image courtesy of DS

a whole world of sticky pigments

photo-24

Several weeks ago, Venerable Hojin, an ordained priest from Zen Mountain Monastery, came down with Ryushin Sensei, the abbot, to lead a workshop on campus. Ryushin Sensei was giving a Dharma talk that evening, but Hojin was facilitating an introductory workshop to spirituality and art.

Ven. Hojin is a painter by training, and she continues to work mostly with paint. She started us out with a color exercise, intended to help us engage color in a more nuanced, and very importantly, attentive way. Working with watercolors on postcard-sized pieces of good paper, we were instructed to chose one color and fill the paper with it. The picture below is a close-up of that workshop’s first exercise.

yellow

I hadn’t played with a set of watercolors since I was in elementary school. Lots of the usual demons came out to play along with me: the “I don’t know how to do this” demon, the “Hers is better than mine” demon, the “I don’t want to do this if I don’t make something good” demon. Ah, demons. Always around, wanting attention. I try and think of them as small, hyperactive pets, or ill-behaved but basically decent children.

After the watercolor session, Ven. Hojin led us outside and instructed us to find colors in the environment. She showed a piece she had begun earlier on her way to the campus: splotches of deep maroon and violet occupied a corner of the paper. They were flowers and leaves she’d found on her way, and rubbed into the paper. Away we went, too, in search of color. That workshop opened me up to paint and to color in a radically different way. When I make photographs in color, I don’t consider the color as a quality of an object that I can draw out on its own and work with as a singular subject. I did an entire photo-poetic journal one winter around the theme of red, but red was the theme, not the subject. I was attracted to this practice of color, even though I wasn’t very pleased with my first results. I really enjoyed playing with the watercolors, though, especially with the relatively simply injunction to work with one color at the beginning.

Today, I needed to make some cards to send people. I tried painting a couple but really didn’t like what resulted (“too much thinking,” which turns out to be as much a problem with paints as it is for me when making photographs or writing; more intuition, more attentiveness, less artifice, is not only a very different process but also a very different piece). So I took paper and fingers and eyes out with me today, and found colors. I started with a tulip tree and some dandelions. I added pansies, daffodils, periwinkle, red maple, grass, forsythia, and more whose names I don’t know. The results are as you see here. The first picture is today’s exercises piled one on top of another on the kitchen table; the two photos below are close-ups of two different pieces.

photo-25

In between making the piece above and the one below, I attended Friday prayers (jummah) with the campus community. In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I’ve been struggling as I struggled 11 and a half years ago to make sense of things, and to find constructive and healing ways to address my own pain and confusion, as well as reach out to the greater faith community. I asked our Immam if I could attend Friday prayers, and he invited me to come. What happened in Boston—I’ll be honest. I don’t want to go into it. I went to jummah out of sorrow and hope and the belief that by being together and praying together something positive will result. The Muslim Students’ Association coordinator, a young woman, brought an extra scarf for me to cover my head, in a plain beige.

The call to prayer and the chants pierce straight through me, every time. I watched the women pray. The physical postures of prayer, so different in the details and so similar in the general attitude, moved me to reconsider and re-enliven my own physical prayer. It also delights me to no end to look at the various colors and patterns of their headscarves. I live in a largely monochromatic or at least visually restrained religious environment, and it fills me with a child-like pleasure to see the many-colored scarves the women wear, and to both watch them pray, and pray with them. I can’t be anything but a bit of an outsider, but they invited me in, made a space for me. Afterward there was a community lunch, and a small group of us (including the young Jewish classmate who emailed the Students’ Association coordinator, a friend of his, to find me a hijab!) chatted and nibbled. Then I left to go drop off my alumni auditing application for next fall, so that I can officially audit courses.

plant paint 3

All along the street were colors and more colors. A whole world of sticky pigments I’d never explored. What amazes me yet again in looking at the pictures is how textured and layered the pieces can become. In some ways, plants behave like pencils; in other ways, like paint. I mostly played around with “brush” stroke direction and layering colors, and working with my timidity and fear of making something “bad” by making big, bold strokes and creating large patches of color before filling in with other colors. The color of a petal or sepal isn’t always the color you get on the page. A lot of experimentation and discovery happened today, which was exciting. I’m incredibly grateful to Ven. Hojin for introducing me to this; it’s replaced the camera on some outings, asking me to understand the essence of something as not manifest through its form, but through its color. It’s also encouraged me to make journal entries that are color-scapes instead of notations, the various plants used in the making of an exercise serving as the cues for where I went, and what I saw or touched.

summer 2012

Matt and Ven. Joseph, Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012

Matt and Ven. Joseph, Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012

Studying on the front porch. Tibet House, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Studying on the front porch. Tibet House, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Gen Thinley Lama, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Gen Thinley Lama, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Prayer flags and the rear view. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Prayer flags and the rear view. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Tendor, Executive Director for Students for a Free Tibet, makes notes before a small meeting in Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Tendor, Executive Director for Students for a Free Tibet, makes notes before a small meeting in Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Fresh flowers, Charlottesville Farmer's Market. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Fresh flowers, Charlottesville Farmer’s Market. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Matt Richter. Tibet House, UVA, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Matt Richter. Tibet House, UVA, Charlottesville VA. Summer 2012.

Looking east out the dorm room window. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.

Looking east out the dorm room window. Charlottesville, VA. Summer 2012.