Musings with Camera in Hand

Belinda Greb – The Photographic Journey


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Reflections and Possibilities

December is a month that seems to sweep us off our feet – full of joy, stress, bad weather, bargain hunting, friends, travel, being away from home or having a lot of guests in your home, expectations, more stress, family, and did I mention stress?

The month seems to go blazing by.  We’ve just had our Thanksgiving dinners, and suddenly there’s less than a week to Christmas.  For several years I used to make the trip from New York to Oregon, and that was fun – worrying about plane cancellations, stranded in airports with other passengers just about as grouchy as me.  And travel by car can also be harrowing during the winter. This year has been a prime example.

But every year, it is  a time most of us still look forward to. A time, when, Christian or not, family and friends make the time to get together to celebrate.  If you were brought up in the Christian faith, it a time of a miracle of Christ’s birth, a gift.  Chanukah is also revolves about a miracle.  And then of course during this season, there’s also Santa Claus, and A Miracle on 34th Street, and the season of giving. It’s a time where we supposed to drop our daily meditations on the annoying and mundane, and embrace the spirit of love, generosity and possibility.

Growing up, I seemed to feel that holiday spirit more.  Shopping was fun – there was music, colorful lights, the smell of freshly cut fir trees, everybody wishing everybody else a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. I don’t quite feel that spirit as much anymore, but still, despite our hectic lives, there are still lights – albeit usually LED, most people are making an effort to be a bit kinder, and there is that seemingly universal and eternal hope that nobody will get too drunk, or too angry with each other over the Christmas dinner, and that the Jimmy Stewart moment will make an appearance in our lives in some shape or form.

But, it is also a time when family can disappoint, perhaps because one’s expectations are unrealistic. We expect magic and sometimes we just get Mom, Dad, and Uncle Joe, with all their warts, their foibles, their ordinary selves. And yet even in the middle of squabbles, rehashed battlegrounds, there are at least moments (moments that can last a lifetime), when we look around and realize that these are the people we love.

Of course it is also a time that is very difficult for some.  For those who can’t be with family, or for those who have lost a loved one – this is a time where that absence is felt most keenly. It might seem that nobody else in the whole wide world is as alone as you. But I think that each of us is always alone and never alone. There are living things all around us, and there are what we might consider to be non-living things present with us – our memories of moments passed, the energy of those not with us. If we can allow ourselves to feel that, I think it helps.

As a young woman, I used to like to grab a break from the hustle of Christmas gatherings in that post present-opening lull to say I needed to take my dog for a walk.  I need my alone time, each and every day. That’s just me. I want a time to reflect. While walking my dog on those Christmas days, it would seem that everybody else was inside with family or friends, and that the quiet world was mine alone. My thoughts would drift to friends and wonder how they were spending their day. I would think of the new year that would soon be upon us, bringing what? And off my mind would go to hopes of romance, opportunities for expansion, and movement towards a brighter future. But at the same time, I was soaking in the beautiful fields, the chill of the air, enjoying seeing my dog at that time, my loyal German Shepherd mix, Mishka, run and feeling her freedom. The day was usually quiet because then most places were closed, and it would be magical.

December is a marker – the end of another year, time that is somehow felt as being more gone than it was in March or August or even November. In our country, the land has also gone dormant, the days are short and dark. It is a time for looking back and evaluating whether we have spent the time wisely. We might think of the plans we made a year ago, the list of things we wanted to accomplish.  For most of us, we realize that December is not the only month that has slipped by like a ghost. It is frightening to think of how fast the time has sped by. We might have made tentative plans to see an old friend or thought about a place we wanted to travel to, or a project we wanted to complete, and now the year is irretrievably gone.

I think perhaps it is good that all of these things coincide. Maybe the heightened sense of the passage of time, the emotional intensity of being around family and friends or of not being around family and friends, the religious and mythical elements of mystery, miracle and magic that linger on the air like a familiar fragrance touching upon past associations might take us to a place where we can remember how we felt as a child with eyes full of excitement and wonder, minds with a consciousness of the possibilities that lay ahead and hearts that are wide open.

Especially the end of December – the week between Christmas and the New Year is a wonderful time for reflecting upon the past and thinking of the possibilities for the future. My wishes for the upcoming year are: that I attempt not to take any hardships personally or pity myself, but remember that there are others who have far less, experience far worse, and that any challenges that arise for me are but one drop in a sea of suffering; that I realize that I’m a spiritual being and growth on that level is the most important; that I remember to be kind and patient (one of my life’s challenges); that I endeavor to be conscious of the beauty around me in people, places and things. What are your wishes? I hope you can find some time this month to find your own peaceful moments for reflection. May the spirit of the season be upon you!

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The Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago, I went to up the Portland area to revisit Sauvie Island, and the photographs this week will be from that trip.  But what I really wanted to write about, as it’s been on my mind, is communication, and how it’s changed over the last two decades.

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 5.00.55 PM

Empty Swimming Pool on a Foggy Night (taken at 1am with a long exposure)

I studied English Literature, and actually have a Master’s in that, although I certainly don’t believe I’m a master communicator.  Verbally, I’m probably worse than most, because I was so shy growing up that I would stumble over my words, speak softly, and nothing would never quite come out the way I wanted, unless I was really upset, angry or impassioned enough to not think about my “stage” fright.

However, I always loved to read, and for a long time I wanted to be a writer.  So I grew up reading novels by Henry James, and Dostoevsky, and the writing was subtle, the sentences long, and there were usually a lot of characters populating the pages. I liked the nuances and precision of the language used – the attempt to render a feeling or concept understandable, even if it entailed multiple paragraphs.  I remember being told in a creative writing group that I had too many characters, because I had introduced two names of minor characters. Are we really becoming that overloaded that we are unable to take in a couple of names and then later distinguish that these aren’t major characters?  Are we to be limited to only 5 or 6 characters at the most?  Here is a list of the characters in Crime and Punishment:

  • RODION ROMANOVITCH RASKOLNIKOV, a student.
    PULCHERIA ALEXANDROVNA, his mother.
    AVDOTYA ROMANOVNA (DOUNIA), his sister.
    DMITRI PROKOFITCH RAZUMIHIN, his friend.
    PRASKOVYA PAVLOVNA, his landlady.
    NASTASYA PETROVNA, her maid-servant.
    ALYONA IVANOVNA, an old woman, a pawnbroker.
    LIZAVETA, her half-sister.
    SEMYON ZAHAROVITCH MARMELADOV, a drunken clerk.
    KATERINA IVANOVNA, his wife.
    Her three little children.
    SONIA SEMYONOVNA, Marmeladov’s daughter.
    AMALIA IVANOVNA LIPPEVECHSEL, his landlady.
    ANDREY SEMYONOVITCH LEBEZIATNIKOV, an advanced young man
    PYOTR PETROVITCH LUZHIN, suitor for Dounia.
    ARKADY IVANOVITCH SVIDRIGAÏLOV, a landowner.
    MARFA PETROVNA, his wife.
    NIKODIM FOMITCH, superintendent of the district,
    ZAMETOV, head clerk,
    ILYA PETROVITCH, assistant clerk,
    PORFIRY PETROVITCH, detective, of the St. Petersburg police.
    ZOSSIMOV, a young physician.

When you read the novel, you don’t have to remember the maidservant’s name, but surely, it adds believability and depth to the story when Raskolnikov addresses her by the name. Should Raskolnikov never address her, or should she be written out, just not to test the limits of a reader’s memory?

In the late 80’s or early 90’s I was horrified after doing an in-depth analytical report to hear that management wanted bullet points. Bullet points! Boil down the analysis to key points and conclusions. Okay. Presumably the need for bullet points is for better time management and also for guiding the focus of the reader. But what is left out when an analyst is striving to abbreviate an issue? Will the decision be a good one when a manager is making a decision and all he can remember are the bullet points or catchphrases? The problem I have with bullet points is that too often they are relied on as the core of the analysis. It’s as if by ordering a complex issue in short easy to swallow phrases, the issue will be seen as simple. And that is dangerous. Any relationship between the points might be overlooked and the various aspects behind the bullet points forgotten. And I believe, it changes the way we think.

Think of the way language is used in advertisements and politics as obvious examples of how catchphrases are used to simplify or even consciously distort issues. Think about how people can believe that government is bad because it can be wasteful, and not think about ways when government structure is needed in order to provide help when it comes to fires, crime, food regulations, etc.

Of course, language always changes and I’m not advocating that we don’t use emails, texting, twitter, Facebook, or even bullet points.  But several months ago, I did read an article where the writer was upset because his father wanted to speak to him on the phone as opposed to just tweeting him and angry over the fact that someone wasted his time sending an email that thanked him. And this is what I fear, that  our communication will no longer be fluid or comprehensive and will become only one-sided, flat and meaningless.

Most conversations used to take place, face to face, or over the phone which provided additional clues, like body language, facial expressions, voice inflections. Now we communicate over the airwaves in little blurbs.  Sometimes there are misunderstandings on forums, because humor vs irony vs sarcasm is not easily denoted by an emoticon. And friendships and romances that have bloomed in a virtual world don’t necessarily work out in the real world because the real world usually includes having to react in real-time to a real live person.

I’ve heard anecdotes from friends and relatives, and have experienced this myself both socially and in a business setting, where an email is sent, and the response doesn’t even acknowledge key points of the first email.  In fact it is questionable whether the other person even read the email.

It disturbs me that our connectedness to each other will become the Facebook model, where we acknowledge our friendship by “liking” or commenting “cool” on each other’s pages. Where two friends walk down the street both texting other friends while supposedly carrying on a conversation with the first.

At the job I presently work at, no one spoke to me for the first two days except by email or phone. I knew voices (names were not always given due to the emphasis on speed), but could pass the person in the hall and not know it was a supervisor I had talked to five minutes before.  Business has become all about “quantifying” rather than “qualifying.” Issues are to be resolved in an average of 4 to 5 minutes and you’re supposed to try to sell a product as well.  You might not have time to explain all the details, but . . . oh well. Anonymity rules and people just don’t have time for communication that can’t fit neatly into a fifteen second slot. I have been laughing at one current commercial where people are shown answering a cell phone, and one of them says upon answering, “I have one second” (or “you have one second).”  All too true, and yet I think we all need more than that.

There is some great discourse in newspaper forums, and I’m sure that we each have friendships where beautiful conversations still take place. But I see a trend, and it’s worrisome.

I use twitter to promote my artwork and others’, and when tweeting about others’ work I try to say something unique about the piece, although not always, but as a way of supporting them.  But now there are auto-tweets.  I was amused and disappointed to find one of my tweets,  “Happy Thanksgiving and if you’re on the road today – Drive Safely” re-tweeted more than five days after the holiday and re-tweeted multiple times by some.  In addition, there are “Thanks [NAME] for the Retweets” that get re-tweeted. So a person re-tweets a message that involves neither themselves or their followers for what purpose? The machines are talking to each other apparently, and it appears that consciousness doesn’t have any part in the conversation.

Perhaps that’s why I gave up trying to write (at least novels), although I guess I haven’t completely given up on writing completely since I’m writing this. I find myself talking less and less, and only to those I know are listening. I’ve turned to photography to try to express what I find in the world that is meaningful to me. I continue to read and look at art that others are putting forth to try to understand what their experience is about. My guess is that others are doing the same.  Maybe we are all searching for new ways of communication.  Is anybody out there?