Scale

Every few minutes or so, another car passed. More trucks than cars, actually; I’d left town behind and ventured into farm country, where plowed fields like the one captured in this post’s featured image dominate.

People who tend this land need their vehicles for more than transportation. They need to haul feed and equipment. They need Rhino-lined truck beds, 300-plus horsepower engines, reinforced axles.

The longer I stayed, the more anxious I became that one would stop and I’d be called out for trespassing.

At even the faintest rush of approaching traffic, I pointed and shot whatever was in front of me, then glanced to the mouth of the lane, preparing myself to leap out of the brush in case the car or truck happened to pull off the road and growl down to where I’d parked my Vibe.

I imagined the scene that would follow:

The driver would roll down his window and ask what the hell right I had to do — whatever I was doing out here.

He’d speak firmly and without hesitation. He’d be wearing sunglasses, or else he’d have a ball cap with a tightly-rolled and curled bill pulled low over clear eyes and grizzled cheeks.

“I’m just taking pictures,” I’d say. “I didn’t think anyone would mind.”

I had good reason to think so. The land is overgrown. The house has been abandoned a couple decades at least. Its windows have been shattered. The roof over the porch has fallen in, its beams exposed; while I approached and photographed the porch banister, some plastic sheeting that had gotten caught on the head of an exposed nail flapped in a loose wind.

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I’ve often felt this way about my creative pursuits, writing, blogging; I used to feel the same way about running when I was an avid, every-day-rain-or-shine runner. I felt that any responsible person would say I was wasting my time, doing something useless.

These feelings about my pursuits came from no one in particular; it would be more accurate to say they came from the worst I could imagine others thinking of me. As if I’d already failed them — everyone, my friends, family. Everyone. I felt small. Still do at times. Especially when it’s difficult to show the value of the work.

It’s been ages since my last publication. I’ve had trouble finishing anything, and every completed poem or story seems wrong for any number of reasons. Perhaps it doesn’t fit a particular journal’s aesthetic. Or else it’s too long, or too straightforward, or too narrowly focused or too personal.

On top of that  — maybe because of that — I’m struggling to remain invested in the characters I’m currently working on.

Teaching presents its own challenges. I feel as incapable of measuring up in the classroom as I do on the page at times. Again, I know these feelings originate inside my own head. I’m as good as anyone at taking one small incident — a student missing class, or an assignment turned in that’s missing one or two elements — and blowing it way out of proportion.

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Scale.

As I look back at the images I captured while I trespassed on this abandoned homestead, I begin to see the shape of my own personal struggles with scale. More precisely, I begin to see my problems as problems of scale: I continue making mountains out of mole-hill issues, turning small misses into reasons to question my abilities, purposes, who I am.

Come to East-Central Ohio and you’ll likely drive past more than a handful of sites like this one, where old houses are being swallowed by rampant Nature and silos crumple while creeper vines and seedlings take root in cracks and gouges in the clay.

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There’s sadness here, and a strong sense that the values which shaped this and other such places have fallen away or have been superseded.

Ways of living change.

Lives change; people choose to live differently. We see this most clearly in what’s left behind.

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But for all that loss and sadness and nostalgia, I’ve never felt hopeless at the sight of places like this. What I’ve felt instead — what I felt this afternoon — was grounded. Centered. As if everything in the world had regained proper proportions.

No one stopped. No driver turned off and drove down the lane and demanded to know what I was after. I left after taking a few close-ups of the house — and of the bones in the shot above, which I nearly stepped on walking back to my car.

A deer’s spine and ribcage? I couldn’t  — can’t — be sure. Whatever the animal, the remains of its skeleton might have been lying where I photographed them for years and years. Or they might have rested there only a season. Each rib had been picked clean, and the sun had bleached the bones to match the yellowed shades of the dead grass and corn stubble. The bones may symbolize scale more powerfully than either the faded house or the crumbling silo do. I tried to capture the bones’ proportional bigness in the final shot.

 

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. tjparis says:

    This is a brilliant collection of images and your post has so much to say about so many of us trying to find the time and energy to do what we have a passion for. I’m a teacher too so know how easy it is to get caught up in the day to day things. Best wishes from Western Australia. TJ

    1. Thanks for reading, TJ. And thanks for helping to reinforce what I struggle to keep in mind as I move through this world: the pursuit of passion is not something we do alone. Keeping this blog and engaging with writers like you are both strong reminders that this is a shared endeavor, and that the next burst of creative energy may not be in view but is nearby, and within our grasp of we keep writing, keep engaging with other writers, and keep finding ways to balance what we have to do with what drives us. Thanks again for reading. Looking forward to checking out what you’ll do next on your blog.

      1. tjparis says:

        Likewise! I have only been blogging for a year or so, but it has been a great way to add a degree of discipline to creative energy. I have had a novel on the go for about 5 years (too busy to finish…etc, etc) and now it is something I want to complete. Not because I think it is the next masterpiece, but because it is something I want to do rather than something I must do. I enjoy the brevity of poetry and short vignette writing but need to commit time to finishing longer work. I am great at helping kids set goals for themselves but “practicing my preaching” is not something I excel in…. 🙂 Bon weekend! and see you round!

  2. Lulu says:

    Wonderful photo essay…keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by, Lulu. I’m glad to know the format of the post resonated with you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. WOW! Just WOW!!! I felt part of this place, the photos, your words. Very nice. Thank you for this journey.

    1. I’m glad you decided to come along, Susan! Thanks a lot for your feedback. I really feel encouraged to keep working like this, thanks to your encouragement.

      1. You have some really great stuff here. I’m glad to be following and reading your posts and seeing your great photos as well. Keep expanding your writing:) I’ll keep reading!

  4. hannahkenway says:

    This is really wonderful Patrick. The sense of why? that you convey is pervasive and it’s a tricky one to answer. The idea that you feel that in your writing, art, running – whatever, you’re not quite living in a proper productive way, really comes across.
    I’m not sure about your culture, but certainly here in the UK there is a real “production” ethic – long hours worked, targets reached, reports published all equal success and self esteem – pats on the back from colleagues. There’s very little room for experimentation, for learning through failure and this is a great shame as it stifles real creativity and joy in an activity for it’s own sake.
    I find this all the time – I need to apologise for being an artist – whilst actually it’s OK because my day job is considered as “worthy”
    Your photography, writing and also your thoughtful comments on other people’s work are inspiring.

    1. I think you’re right, Hannah: the need to experiment seems to become greater when its acceptability wanes. So often we’re encouraged when in college or younger to “try new things”, in part because the stakes are so low; when you’re younger, your unattached, employed part-time, focused primarily on study and play. You’re developing a skill set — you’re supposed to be. (I’m using the general “you” by the way.) There does seem written in this mindset the assumption that one day soon it’ll no longer make sense for younger people to experiment. Once college ends, the real world and all its responsibilities preclude any behaviors which might jeopardize stability of any kind. This, I think, hits on part of my struggle. Yours, too, if I understand you correctly. While the world sees the art as acceptable because you’re doing it as a hobby, to you, your day job is there to support your art. While your art remains something you do on the side, it may be the most valuable way you spend your time. I’ve seen the photos you show of your sculpture, and it’s clear you’ve found a way through that work to access a deeper truth. This same truth shows in your photographs.

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you brought this up. It has helped me put my writing into clearer perspective. I’ve been struggling to do so, lately, and I’m finding good advice in the comments you and others have left.

  5. debs blog says:

    The other replies here captured my many initial reactions to your essay and photos. Stunning work.
    Having been a person who thought creativity was nice, instead of essential, for most of my life I can relate to your perceived reactions of other people. I was most likely the kind of person you worry about. Both of my sons are gifted creatively. Have I nurtured that? Not until recently, and they are in their 20’s and 30’s. Before that I would “mentor” them on their career choices and goals. 5 year plans. How to master interviewing. Whatever creativity I would have once had in me was lost in the world of deadlines and numbers. I am thankful in so many ways, for the wake up.
    Grounded- that word! It resonates here in your essay, and everywhere in my life now. I learned about it first from a girl at work, who is in the same generation as my sons. I was getting ready to run a large meeting in front of about 30 people, sitting in the back of the large conference room waiting for my turn to go on. This was not something new to me, but at that time in my life it felt impossible. My friend knew what was happening in my life at that time. She leaned over and whispered “feel the souls of your feet while you are up there. Pay attention to them, it grounds you” She saved me from walking out and pretending to be ill that day, so that I wouldn’t have to run that meeting. I actively seek out grounding every day it’s so powerful.
    Creativity is not a nice to have. It is the essence of our spirit. Try not to let our production culture snuff that out of you. Especially you, who is also teaching it.
    This piece is thought provoking, memorable and beautiful.

    1. Hi, Deb. I hope you’ll forgive the late reply. Please know this comment really resonated with me, for both of the stories you share. First, to your point about how essential creativity is to living–so true. I have actually been reminding myself of the way you put this in your comment these past couple days, and it has helped me push through to find some greater clarity. I would even go so far as to say that the ways you helped your sons is more creative an act than you might think. Think of it: mentorships are essentially investments in the creation of another’s future. You were reminding your sons of the importance of focusing on what matters. I’ve come to believe that such a focus is a huge part of the creative drive. Otherwise we’re just expending a lot of untrained energy.

      And you’ll have to let your friend from work know how appreciative I am, too, of that piece of wisdom. I hadn’t ever realized how easy it is to become separated from yourself by fear. She was encouraging mindfulness. Creativity seems borne of a deep attention to what matters, to where you are, to what you can do and what’s possible. She was wise; it was clearly impacted you. Now I think, based on your writing, you’re able to look within your situation to unearth the deeper significance of where you are and where you’re headed.

      I appreciate being included on that journey. Thanks for your readership and again for the stories. I’m holding onto their lessons, letting them keep me focused on finding what grounds me.

      I’ll be by your blog soon to see where you’ve been lately. Looking forward to our next conversation.

      1. debs blog says:

        Ah thank you- your comments and replies are as meaningful as your essays. My wise young friend has been thanked again.

  6. I won’t repeat what the others have stated above. Well…yes I will but with different words. Your time is not wasted. You have a beautiful writing voice. It’s easy and real and makes me feel something. And the photos fit and add to what I feel. You’re not small…..there are no small lives.

  7. Joseph Kane says:

    Patrick, this is wonderful. I particularly liked the passage referring to the pursuit of — whatever it is we do. We’re all really just flapping in the wind, but the point is to continue forth. Wonderful stuff, man.

    1. Kane: you said it, my friend. The point truly is “to continue forth.” I’ll have to break from this habit I’m developing of posting think-pieces that dwell on my inability or reluctance to embrace the creative pull, because I’m realizing through the comments on this and other posts, as well as through comments I’m compelled to make on others’ posts, that I’ve stumbled upon a new way of practicing writing. Continuing on, for me right now, means finding photographs and letting them help me speak of my inner rumblings.

      As always, man, it’s good to have you along for the ride. I’ll be by shortly, tomorrow at the latest, to pop a comment up on your latest, which I read and which has left me thinking about people’s pasts, and how sometimes relative strangers reveal much more about who they are and what they want of us than they may know.

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