Everyone should have a cornfield to disappear into. Or a thicket. I imagine a deserted beach would be equally therapeutic with breakers rolling in from thousands of miles of sea surge, upwelling, undertow, equatorial light and calving glaciers, with imagination to fill in the blanks of a barren littoral scrape of sand. A mountain summit with endless vistas of serrated snowy peaks is too raw, too humbling, and usually too wintry to want to spend any length of time upon; peaks are made for bagging and bragging. Cornfields and thickets, deep hardwood forests, or even aspen glades on high mountain slopes, envelope in tranquility, embracing the troubled soul, both restorative and refuge, like returning to the dark, liquid ocean of the womb.
All of which I needed after a work-related mission that filled me with dread.
There were, as always, other things at play. A friend had asked for a dozen or so photographs to put on a Web site devoted to Kansas photographers, an act I found generous, exhilarating and not a little scary. So much of art is solitary and introspective that it seems contrary to go public, as if sharing somehow mars the inherent intimacy of the artist’s vision. Visibility also cracks the hard shell of solitude to expose the artist to the criticisms and critiques of outsiders, a fact that many artists find far too invasive.
I promised my friend the photos and set about deciding which ones to include. He wanted a representation of my work, something that defined my photographic perspective. It wasn’t easy. Some noted photographers specialize in landscape or wildlife, some are known by their black and white works or vibrant color washes, and others by portrait or architecture. I seem to be all over the place, capturing whatever I find interesting at the moment: dying peonies, landscapes, abandoned buildings and vehicles, ancient petroglyphs and ruins, and rabbits—especially wild rabbits. Nor can I seem to decide upon one medium, color or monochrome. I do a little of this and a little of that and usually go with what the image demands. Photographers will understand the concept.
Late Friday evening I uploaded what I considered a good cross-representation of what I considered my best, and apprehensively moved on to research something I never thought I’d do: photograph sports.
I keep hearing that artists need to challenge themselves, to go outside their comfort zones, as if it were a border where one passed from the ordinary to the extraordinary, or from Ohio to Idaho. While I understand the theory—it’s all about growing, after all—the execution leaves much to be desired. Like most things we find either repugnant or terrifying but which circumstances force us into, once we’re engaged we often find ourselves enjoying the experience, even if it’s the last thing we’d admit. And, of course, sometimes we don’t.
My mistake was in telling my editor I was free. And so it was that I found myself after a sleepless night entering a public school with no idea where to go, how to identify the proper teams, where to stand, what to look for, what camera settings to use, or even what was expected. I’m not a fan of sports of any kind, nor is school my forte. For me, going outside my comfort zone means entering the doors to a high school; being lost and feeling very, very alone just adds to the angst.
After my initial terror, I figured out jerseys and team colors and angles and managed to relax a little. I’m not comfortable in front of crowds, and carrying a huge telephoto lens definitely makes a person stand out. My captures were okay. Not great, but okay. (Sports Illustrated will not be calling to request my services.) I left the school with an enormous sense of relief. When I got home I found my e-mail filled with compliments on my photographic spread, but feelings of gratitude were swamped by a dizzying sense of vulnerability mingled with a dozen other stark emotions.
After a lonely supper I walked outside and into the cornfield and listened for a while to the wind in the dry crackling leaves, and then back into the yard where the evening sun fell through the thicket now more open and airy. I could see the neighbor’s white picket fence and Mr. Bun’s cairn and the light was golden-green. It drew me so that I crossed the yard littered with the leaves of redbud and birch and a few long tendrils of corn stalks and passed the garden now shriveled and browning, until I stood before a slight depression just within the trees. “Sheba,” I said, and a rabbit bounded away to my left.
Poison ivy was a red flame licking at the base of the trees. I thought of rabbits and the feel of their silky fur and their wet noses and lustrous eyes, and of solitude that can be more like a prison. As the sun sank below the unseen horizon and the tasseled crests of the cornfield flared incandent before smoldering to ash, I thought of how we learn and grow, how each experiment only adds to our furthering, a necessary part of our blind journey. And I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what I needed to do, and of how little I knew about doing it. How exposed I was. The wind strengthened and rattled the sheaves like sabers. Move, I thought. Move.
In motion, following the rabbit into the cornfield and along the edge of the thicket to the apple tree, sadly bereft of fruit, and along the back line of our property, the neighbor’s dog taking exception and yapping incessantly. The hay bales grown rusty and dark, slightly flattened, and beyond the thicket a clearing studded with small cedars. Seed heads glowed in the dimming light. I forgot about the dog and listened to the grass swish on my legs as I crossed our prairie patch and so came at last back onto our cropped lawn. Two bluebirds whistled and flew away.
If we’re lucky, I realized, we get one or two chances to make good. The chances don’t mean we will perform flawlessly or find success, only that we are given an opportunity that might never come again. Accepting that opportunity is what life is all about. It takes a measure of courage, even fearful courage, but like circumnavigating the thicket, or disappearing into the cornfield, we take our refuge the same as we take our chances, with little steps one after the other. It’s all about little steps.