Thursday, March 12, 2015

Splurge on the Large Prints

At the end of this month, I will be entering a local, amateur photography competition. When I learned about the annual event at about this time last year, I promised myself I would enter this year. This year. Barely a year after I switched my camera from automatic to manual and started trying to learn what all those buttons and dials do. (Still learning. Forever learning, I suspect.) I read a little and asked questions of friends who know far more about photography than I do, but mostly, I spent the year taking approximately eleventy-million pictures and figuring out what I did and didn’t like, what did and didn’t work. Some of the pictures were awful. Many were ordinary. Some I loved. And a handful absolutely took my breath away.

The last few weeks have been exciting, as I’ve sought input from photographer friends on what caught their eyes and how to tweak my edits, as well as finalizing my (four) choices. But I’m nervous, too. This is a whole new level of vulnerability in which I’m actually asking people to critique my work. Good things will come, I know (and I’m not talking about blue ribbons – that’s not my goal and doesn’t feel at all attainable), but it’s still hard to open myself up like this.

Part of the process of preparing for the competition is, of course, ordering prints. Large prints. To be matted and framed and hung for display. When the box of prints arrived, I placed it on the dining room table and anxiously tore into the box.

And I was stopped in my tracks.

Most of my images I have never seen outside my computer screen. The images I have printed, I have never seen larger than what a standard tabletop frame would hold. But enlarged, details emerged: the rich green of mid-summer, the beautiful texture of wood grain, the pebbled appearance of galvanized metal, water droplets catching the afternoon light, perfect rosy lips. The simple act of printing these images in a larger size transformed them from mere photographs into art. Art.

I’ve only recently started becoming comfortable with the idea of calling myself a photographer. And when I do use the p-word, I’m always sure to firmly plant in front a descriptor that clearly indicates where I place myself in the hierarchy of photographers: “fledgling,” “beginner,” “new,” “amateur.” Barely worthy of calling myself a photographer.

But when I saw those large prints, something inside me shifted, and I realized that what makes one a photographer isn’t composition, lighting, exposure, and depth of field. Knowing how to do those things well is part of what makes a good photographer, but it isn’t what makes one a photographer. I’m a photographer because I strive to capture how I see the world – the beauty, the emotions, the shapes, the colors, the light (oh, the light) – in a still, digital image. Other people show us their worlds with their voices or fabric, clay or the movement of their bodies, a piano or a typewriter, acrylics or wood. Artists all.

Which means that not only do I have to come to terms with calling myself a photographer but, also, with calling myself an artist. This realization is maybe a little more than I’m capable of wrapping my head around right now. I’ve spent a long time waiting until I was “good enough” for such a label, waiting until I had achieved sufficient technical skill. But there are many other labels I have adopted, fully recognizing my (many) limitations (like “mother” and “Christian”). I could wait forever and still never feel worthy of being called an artist or photographer.

If I hadn’t decided to enter the photography competition and hadn’t needed to order those large prints, I wonder when, or even if, I would have decided I am a photographer. An artist. And I wonder how many others there are like me, attaching qualifiers to the label “artist,” questioning their value, downplaying the beautiful way they see and interact with the world.

Friends, trust me: Splurge on the large prints. And a mat and frame while you’re at it. You’re worthy.

Buy the domain name for the blog you’ve been contemplating, the leather-bound journal, the beautiful pad of sketch paper, or the nicest brushes. Hang your painting above the sofa. Audition for a talent show. Give your pottery as Christmas gifts. Sign up for the photography conference coming to your town. (Apply for the scholarship if you need to.) Reach out to someone you’d like to mentor you. Enroll in a dance class. Start an acting class in your neighborhood. Set aside time in your day to nurture your art. Sign your painting.

Do whatever little (or big!) thing you’ve been holding back on because you think you’re not good enough, because you don’t see yourself as the artist you are.

You may not feel ready. You may never feel ready. But you’re an artist. And you’re worthy. And that’s all that matters.

Monday, March 9, 2015

This Little Light of Mine

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I had jaw surgery. As was standard of care in my oral surgeon’s office, he referred me to a therapist for a pre-op visit. I sat in the therapist’s office for an hour as she asked routine questions about my family and friends and school. When she was done, she called my mother into the office and began telling her not only that I was cleared for surgery but that (and there’s no delicate way of sharing this) I was an all-around amazing teenager. As she was saying this, the therapist turned to me smiling and innocently, even jokingly, asked, “Do you ever feel pressure to be so perfect?”

At which point, I began to cry.

The therapist hurried my mother back out of the room. We chatted for a few more minutes, until she decided I really was okay and not under any excessive pressure, and sent me on my way.

I don’t know if anyone has ever spoken such truth to me, about me than that therapist (inadvertently) did that summer day. And I reacted in the most honest way I knew how:

I cried as I recognized myself in her words.

This story came to mind as I was preparing for publication My Story about my parents’ divorce. I sent the piece to my sister, requesting her thoughts. She wrote back and told me it was beautiful but asked if I really wanted to share something so personal. Was I sure?

Well, yes. Yes, of course, I was sure.

I worried about my parents’ reactions, but everyone else? I just knew good things would result from sharing my experience so openly.

However, the truth is there was a time that I wouldn’t have made the choice to share My Story. Lay my soul bare like that? Willingly risk criticism?

No, thank you.

The journey from the time when I presented to the world a carefully constructed image of a conscientious student and all-around good girl to the time when I was ready to share the joyful and shadowy and quirky and very real parts of my life was a long and meandering one, but I remember the precise moment I set upon that path…

I was a senior in high school when I decided to audition for my school’s annual talent show. I had been singing essentially my whole life, and, except for the first several years of my life when my mother (also a singer) anxiously wondered if I’d ever be able to carry a tune in a bucket, I was a pretty good singer. But very few people actually knew what my voice sounded like. Until I sang in the talent show.

After the show, many of my classmates congratulated me on a job well done, but looking back, I realize there was a warmth to their comments that conveyed more than just praise and encouragement. It was a warmth that comes from being let in.

For five minutes, standing on the corner of that stage, spotlight on me, I opened a deep, sacred part of myself to them. For the briefest moment, I let them see me. They received that offering with warmth, and I felt a connection to my classmates that I had never before felt, that I had been unknowingly longing for. A connection that comes only when you expose those well-guarded parts of yourself, when you allow yourself to be known. When you become vulnerable.

When I was a freshman in college, I had another similar moment. Not long after I first told friends that my parents were separated, I learned that the parents of a hallmate had just announced to her their separation. I knew just how devastated and alone she felt and wanted to reach out. I wasn’t ready to talk in person, so I wrote her a letter, walked down the hall to hand deliver it, and returned to my room where I waited anxiously. Minutes later, she appeared at my door, tears running down her face.

She was seen. I was seen. We were not alone.

Over the years, these experiences of intense vulnerability leading to deep connectedness piled up, but it wasn’t until recently I recognized the great joy that results from this connectedness, from allowing myself to be known and truly knowing others. I spent decades of my life trying to present what I thought was the most perfect me. The shiny parts. The good parts. It was exhausting. And it meant that people were rarely interacting with the real me. They didn’t love the real me or hate the real me. They weren’t reaching out to the real me or avoiding the real me. But at the time, it seemed good enough. I would have described myself as happy. I even might have been perfectly content to go through all of life like that. Until I finally recognized the joy of being vulnerable.

Now, I strive to live a life fully seen. This can be an unnerving way to live at times. Each time I publish an intensely personal piece, I sit on pins and needles, waiting for the comments. But I’ve always been rewarded many times over when people say, “I saw some of my own experiences in here,” “Was very similar for me,” “My story is different but feelings still very real,” Me, too.

I know at some point there will be a comment that stings, a criticism that brings tears. Not everyone will like me. But at least they’ll be reacting to the real me, rather than a prettied-up fa├žade. Inviting people to truly see and know me means opening myself up to pain. But the alternative is closing myself off and missing the connectedness and joy. I don’t want to miss the good stuff. I’ll take the pain if it means I get to experience the joy.

When I remember to drop my armor and stay vulnerable, life is so very good. Because then I am seen and known and loved just as I am. As me.

Me, who loves Jesus and leans so far left I might just tip over one day. Me, who twitches and shrieks when I have bits of Styrofoam stuck to my hands that I just can’t shake off and who organizes my house when I get overwhelmed by life. Me, who has a peculiar love of The People’s Court (and would probably, also, still watch Hee Haw if were on the air… because Granddaddy) and who has a passion for serving others. Me, who has heard often what a good mother I am but who knows those people haven’t heard me yell at my boys. Me.

So, yes, I’m sure this is how I want to live. Not hidden. Not pretending to be perfect. (Whatever that is.) Laying my soul bare.

This is me. Here I am. I’m going to let my light shine.

Froggy, who teaches us all how to let our lights shine.