I'm remembering back to an episode of the Travel Channel show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, when Tony is in Japan. He is watching a man make soba noodles. This is what the man does- he makes soba noodles. His entire life he has made soba noodles. Every day of his life. And nothing else. As a matter of fact, in all his Asian travels, so many stops include a person who makes this one thing or does this one thing.
What is a life like that is at once so simple and so wholly purposeful? What it is like to just... be?
I have this memory from when I was young, of visiting the Carmelite monastery in Pittsford NY. The Carmelites are monastic nuns who live a cloistered existence, wholly abandoned to the worship of God. Their life consists of prayer, penance, manual labor, and spiritual contemplation. Out of context it is a beautiful, serene, and I suppose, rewarding life. In some paradigms it might seem a copout. In any, it is an act of renunciation of the tribulations of modern living, with a devotion instead to this one thing- worship; prayer. Every day is purposeful, every life, examined.
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I remembering taking my first picture at the age of ten, a picture of the janitor at my elementary school, with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera (which I still own). It was a child's pursuit, more curiosity than interest. But it was when I was nineteen that I made my first real photograph. I was working my first full-time job. I had been thrown into this crazy work cycle for which nothing in my life had prepared me. I worked eighteen twelve-hour days (3:30 pm to 3:30 am), with one day off between cycles. I followed this schedule for my first six months of employment. It was miserable, but it made me pretty wealthy. Especially for a teen who had been invited to not come back for a second year of junior college.
One of the first things I bought with my riches was a camera; an Olympus OM-1n. My friend Chuck and I were utilizing one of my off days, and we went to Akron Falls State Park. It was a crisp fall day. The leaves were turning, and the park was ablaze with color. Chuck worked in a camera store and was testing a new arrival from Olympus for the weekend. I was there because it was a Sunday and my only day off that month, and I wasn't about to spend it at home watching football. He handed the camera to me to try. I took one picture. The next day he called me from the store, and said I should meet him for lunch. When I arrived he handed me a print of the photo I had taken. I skipped lunch and bought the Olympus instead.
Its hard to convey what I felt when I saw that photo, but it was a combination of "that's so beautiful" and "I made that?" To that point, my adult life had been a combination of failing out of school, and working a meaningless second-shift maintenance job at an auto assembly plant. My uniform was greasy blue-black overalls, my hands perpetually soiled and scarred. Even my pillow case had a permanent yellow stain from where my head had laid upon it. I hated that job because it was not me. It was foreign and and fostered a contemptuous relationship for over a decade.
And then there was that photograph. From it I can trace a convoluted line that led me to where I am now, in my home with my wife and lover of twenty-plus years, a cat asleep on my lap, reaping the simple rewards of a career in teaching.
I teach about photography. And why photography is important. I teach in what is considered a small rural high school, and I teach evening classes at our local community college. I love teaching. I can think of few more rewarding professions. I make no allusions about what I do- at the high school level my job is to create connections- to open a door or two where none existed before, to point out the window and say "look", "see". Some students go on to study photography in college, most don't. But I think most leave changed for the better.
And this is my life. It is what I have done for my entire adult life. For almost twenty-five years. Every day. I never gave it much thought, but I can't imagine doing anything, or being anything, else. Being a teacher allows me to just be myself, to live a life that speaks honestly to me.
I get it now, the soba noodle guy, the Carmelite nun. Its all the same- none of it is about the "what." Nothing happens out of context. It's only ever about the "Why." My story is longer because its mine and I know it better. It is no more, or less, compelling than deciding to be the soba noodle guy, no more, or less, voluntary than choosing a vocation to the Carmelite order. It's about finding a personal water level. Soba guy still has bills to pay and children to raise, the nuns still feel the bone-cold of a New York winter. Life is life no matter how much certain aspects are romanticized. Every day I return home to the unconditional love of my beloved wife and lover. Every night a cat curls up on my lap. And they make me whole. And centered. And though I still carry scars from days as a laborer, they are but reminders of the journey here. About finding peace.
About learning to just...