I’ve been reading (and looking) at a lot of books and pictures lately. I was inspired to go out with nothing but prime lenses and just take pictures of what’s around me. Sooner or later this pandemic will be under control and life will be back to some sort of normalcy. I am struck by how photographers like Diane Arbus and Don McCullin, who took very different types of pictures in very different types of environments captured the humanity of the world they were in. There is dignity in all of us, no matter what our plight and circumstances may be. So last Saturday afternoon, I just went out and took pictures of the world around me. I think that every once in a while, we just need to see the world and remember what it is that makes it whole. Not the grand things. Just every day things.
After listening to Carter Rubin sing Lauren Daigle’s great song, “You Say”, there is nothing that I can say that can be more eloquent than the words in the song. All of us, in our lives, will experience loss; we will hurt. We will have our triumphs. And we will experience happiness. Today is Christmas and it is a celebration not only of the birth of Our Savior, but it really is a reminder that there is no Greater Love than what the Father has for all His Creation. No matter who you are, no matter what your circumstance, you are loved. You are created in the image of God. Loved by Him before you were born unto Earth. Before you drew your first breathe, He knew you. And loved You. We should always remember that God gave us the freedom to love. And be loved. For who we are. Each of us is a gift to each other. From a Creator who loves us all. Equally. Though each of us are different, we are all God’s children.
It’s been a while since my last post. Between work, training, and the busy hum of life in suburbia, I haven’t had much of a chance to post something. There’s also the problem with having a little bit of writers’ block. Weekends are filled with picture taking and cleaning up the house, a little bit. Why do I have all this stuff and what am I going to do with it? Over the years, you buy a small thing here, a small thing there. Cabinets, once empty, fill up. The floor in my study is not quite as open as it once was. A pile of papers here, a pile of papers there. No, I am not going to go through the process of holding each time and trying to find out if this thing or that things gives me joy. Truthfully, there’s just too many things to pick up that if you were to somehow divinate that this or that is giving me joy, I may end up with arms even more tired than they already are. So I’ll just throw some things out, donate some things, and assume that what’s left is giving me joy. Heck, how much joy can a guy take in one day?
Anyway, I took the day off to ruminate. I went for a short walk at the Mosaic District, one of the mixed use neighborhoods that are popping up in Northern Virginia. I love walking around here. There’s a movie theater, a couple of shops and eateries to go to, space for people to walk around and just enjoy the day. This morning, I stopped by the Praline Bakery, one of those nice places to grab a quick bite and just enjoy a few minutes of alone time (before the noon rush). A crisp apple confection (I forgot what they call it) that’s just sweet enough without being overwhelming, with that slightly tart flavor that makes you savor it even more. A nice cup of coffee, and no phone calls or web surfing. Just some downtime.
A place to relax, to think, to ruminate. I picked up the fork, took a small slice out of the confection in front of me, and this feeling of joy was amazing. The joy increased as the desert got ever smaller. I don’t think this is what Marie Kondo had in mind when she said pick things up and see if it brings you joy, but I’ll take it. And now that I know that picking up a fork, in a certain place, is sure to bring me joy, I believe a return trip in the very near future is a very real possibility. Return trips, if I have to be honest. In some things, a guy can’t have enough joy.
And what a colorful selection of deserts (macaroons!). I love the growing diversity in the population. You used to choose from pistachio, vanilla, orange, chocolate, almond. Now you can get mango flavored treats. And passion fruit. Joy, Joy, Joy!!!!
And, there’s this beautiful wall mural outside of this little corner of the world.
And a little dog park/patch right next to it (and I mean little, but it serves its function). Oh, the artist left his calling card.
Great comfort food, a nice day, beautiful wall art. A joyful morning indeed.
Photography is not merely the process of capturing an image. It’s not just looking at the world, looking at the things that are beautiful. It’s not finding cruelty or kindness, nor is it just looking for excitement, nor is it documenting the commonplace and the mundane. Photography is looking at the world and finding in it something that stirs your soul. It is not always bright and cheerful. It is not always gloomy and dark. It is, if you are honest with yourself, a reflection of who you are at the moment.
And because who you are constantly changes, the images captured is never the same. One can hope, however, that as in life, we can always find hope, even joy in all that we see. In the depths of despair there is always the promise of a better tomorrow. In the heights of happiness there is always a realization that moments like this are treasured, but not what we ultimately strive for.
Finding meaning in life, where you know yourself and understand that imperfection is not a curse but a blessing, when you see a world that is not closed but open to possibilities. When you look back not to long for what is past, but to learn that failure is not permanent but is always necessary. To know that success is not a singular achievement but a communal experience. To know that at the center of it all, is not the selfish tyranny of pride and conceit, but that in spite of one’s frailties, generosity and love prevails. That in every moment, great and small, the inner light illuminates the soul and that in all that we are, in all that we do, joy gives meaning to our existence.
And so it was yesterday afternoon, on a surprisingly cool day in July, I walked the grounds of Meadowlark Gardens. Paths walked so many times before. And yet, each step is always different, and so are the pictures.
One look says it all.
To all the mothers in the world. May there be peace and love in your heart always. A love that knows no boundaries, in this life and the next.
After years of not paying attention to my record player (and the old LP recordings), a sense of nostalgia filled my life as 2018 was coming to a close. It was not a very good year for me, but I am not going to say that I had nothing to be thankful for. There are always so many things to be thankful for in one’s life. Lives end, but the experiences shared, the memories, the love remains. It was a time to realize that that old song from “Funny Girl” – “People” still mean the same thing to me now, several decades since I first heard it (and fell in love with the song). Life has ups and downs, but as long as there are people in your life that give it meaning, life is always worth living. Sorrow may linger, but joy always remains.
And so it was that I ended up putting a record on that old Denon record player, only to find out the stylus on the cartridge had snapped. A few days later, Amazon shipped me a new Ortofon cartridge. And what was dusty and forgotten was alive again. As the stylus fell on the vinyl, the past and the present became one. And the sound of music, long unheard, became part of my life again.
A little snippet from Alfred Brendel playing Mozart.
Another thing. Somehow, an old CD player that was supposed to have been donated years ago never made it out of the garage. After cleaning off the dust, it was time to play an old Carly Simon CD. Some things never get old.
A new year. Old things are new again. And new things, well, they’re always there to be discovered. “People. People who need people. Are the luckiest people in the world.” I am a lucky man.
When I think about the things that happened this year, I want to go to a dark room and make everything go away. And just like the college campuses around the United States that deem it necessary to isolate people supposedly investing their time to learn new things, experience a world outside of what they have known, and learn that life is full of the unexpected, it seems that the temptation to only feel, hear and see the good things in life is the answer to a life that doesn’t always have answers to questions that come about. And yet, to shut the world out because it’s not what you want is to deny yourself the essence of what being human is all about.
Life is a series of events that in its eventuality is unstoppable, in its unpredictability predictable. This year has seen the death of someone very dear, the death of others that have filled my head with ideas and my heart with love. There was sadness all around. For the realization that some voices will never be heard again. Some smiles will never be seen again. That a warm touch, that warm hug will never be felt again. The mind senses that change has come. The heart knows that change has come. The spirit knows that while change has come, the world still beckons and that which are gone truly still live in our midst.
A Christian believes that the promise made by a loving Creator becomes manifest in the birth of a child. Whether that child was born in squalor matters not. What matters is that the God who created us all kept His promise to His people. That love, true and unerring, triumphed over disappointment. That forgiveness and mercy is more powerful than hate and betrayal. That in giving His people His son, knowing that He in turn will be betrayed by His creation, God showed us the possibility of what we all can become. If we let love reign in our hearts, we are capable of making the world we live in a world that all of us, whether we consider our self a child of Abraham, whether we follow the precepts of Buddha, whether we find solace in the spirits of the forest – all of us the can transcend the limitations we place upon ourselves. Respect one another. Care for one another. To see people not as impediments to our ambition but truly as a brother or a sister that we can nurture and love.
In the spirit of this season, we can find in the people around us, the world around us reason to be hopeful. To be inspired by those who do small things and seeing countless small things bring joy to those who give so wholly of themselves. I pray that today, we remember that salvation did not come with a proclamation of greatness. It came from a Father that loved us all, from a couple who devoted themselves to the care of a child entrusted to their love, and eventually, the willingness of this child to give Himself wholly for the people He and His father loved. In spite of the hatred and spitefulness heaped against Him, this Son of God and Son of Man gave Himself up to serve all of us. To purchase, with His sacrifice, our salvation.
Love, freely given. And today, we remember, if we so choose, that we are children of this same Father. That like His son who died for us, we are tasked to take care of the world around us. To be stewards of His creation. To love all of His creation. It is not always easy. There are disappointments. In the end, it is this selfless love that must inspire us to live a life of generosity. Of giving. Of sacrifice. Forgiveness. Charity.
Peace on Earth. It starts with each one of us. A small act of kindness, magnified a billion fold. May each of us be a reflection of the love that made life possible. And worth living.
Make someone happy. Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. In our day to day lives, we are bombarded with messages, overt and subliminal, about the importance of being happy. Live your life to maximize your happy moments. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And yet.
In the height of happiness, everything seems possible. The world is at your feet. The view can be intoxicating – everything around you is orbiting a central sun. The central sun that is you. And yet.
Moments of happiness never last. They are not illusory, but they are transitory. A lifetime lived pursuing happiness is a life lived in selfishness, self centeredness. A life that puts one’s self in the center of everything is a life that means nothing. A life that constantly searches for affirmation, for the next big conquest, the next big raise, the next mountain to climb – is that really a life worth living? A life where the self is the centerpiece of existence will experience moments of happiness. And it will experience moments of sorrow. Moments of pain. Moments of great accomplishments mesh with moments of great disappointments. A life that centers on the self and the self alone leaves the soul barren. And the heart empty.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we need to understand that true existence must be centered not on one’s self, but on what one can do for those around us. Selflessness instead of selfishness. A soul exist within the body and outside its confines. An existence that seeks to give, instead of take. Not the material things that we all covet. But one’s self. To let others see you as you are. The crooked smile, the thinning hair, the not so perfect eyebrows? These are not the things that define you. It is that smile, as imperfect as it may be, given to others that may be in need of a smile. Helping someone cross the road, in a stiff wind that blows your hair into a frenzy. Listening to someone, with eyes wide open, eyebrows raised, to let them know that they are not alone, that you can share their burden.
Respecting people, no matter who they are. Embracing differences as a means of recognizing that an individual is but a part of a greater whole. To see the weak and the oppressed and then realize that their struggle is your struggle. Our struggle. To understand that the sense of self is completed when it becomes entwined with the many selves that surround us. Understanding that it is a kind heart that allows joy to permeate a life.
Joy. When happiness subsides, there is something that centers us. When sorrow overwhelms, there is something that supports us. When we feel pain, we somehow know that like happiness, it will not last and a new page will eventually be written. Joy allows us to know ourselves; to find value not in what we have done, not in what we have accumulated; but instead, to find value in who we are, in what we give of ourselves to others. When our heart is filled with generosity, we can truly love. In the selfless abandon of truly sharing who we are, what we have, what we do with others around us, we find that in moments great and small, in the important and in the mundane, there truly is meaning in our lives. That in the core of our existence, there is joy.
For people who love musicals, the hashtag above will be familiar. It is so fitting that at the moment of great loss, I found meaning in music. My first distinct memory of my mother was watching “The Sound of Music” so many years ago. When I posted the last entry on this blog, I was on my way to Manila to bring my mother back home from her vacation. Her cancer came back, and unlike the saying, the third time was not the charm.
It’s hard to imagine what happens when the music that has ruled your life suddenly disappears. It is an empty feeling when your world is devoid of the person who raised you, who understood you, who cared for you. The person who knew you first, the person who felt my heart beat for the first time. The person who taught me that honesty and truth were the important ideals in life. That love, among all the things that we can give to another, is the greatest gift of all. It is so easy to think that all that we have will always be with us. And truth be told, if we lose a lot of the things that we have, we will not be missing anything at all.
That is almost true. The thing is, we are nothing without the people who care for us. And the people that we care for. Why is it that a child with almost nothing at all, in the warm embrace of her mother or father has a smile so broad that in that instant, the world lights up as if a meteor is streaking through the sky. The warmth that love brings is the one thing that truly makes our lives complete. We can look to the skies for inspiration. With love in our lives, we need only look at our hearts to find that a simple look, a simple smile, a single touch is enough to lift our souls to the heavens.
And so it was in May that the person who saw me as I am finally joined the husband that she lost more than a decade ago. In that moment, her spirit joined the spirit of my father and together, I imagine that they look down upon me and in their corporal form, the same love that bore their son fill the heavens, magnified by the love of the countless multitudes who came before them. Love free of the boundaries of time and space.
I say to myself that as long as I remember, as long as I feel, they are never truly gone. The truth is, life for those who lose someone truly dear will never be the same. Life is altered forever. And yet, it does not have to be a life without meaning. Different yes. Meaningless? No.
And so it was that I happened upon the music that keeps playing in my head. It is in an endless loop. Not that it mutes everything else in life. Rather, the music gives one the clarity to understand that as long as we live, there is always a place for us to find love. We need not wait for someone to embrace us. The gift of love is best manifested when we share it with another. And so, in the loneliness and emptiness that death can bring, it is the act of giving one’s self to another that allows us to find life anew.
Accept people as they are. Find the good in all and in so doing we find the good in ourselves. “I never dreamed that I would find someone like you who would want me.” For many of us, we have already lived the dream. Loving parents that nurtured us, cared for us. We have been found, in the very first moments of our existence.
And now, it is up to us to find the meaning of the hashtag “youwillbefound.” It’s not about being alone. It is about realizing that we are never really alone. There will always be someone who will love us. We are, after all, created out of love. We are all children of love that is infinite.
And so, thank you Evan Hansen. In the depths of sorrow, the wonderful music, the incredible story, the beautiful words reminded me that there is so much to live for. No one is truly alone. #youwillbefound.
A note about Dear Evan Hansen. This is the best musical I have seen in years. Dare I say that it might be my favorite musical written in the last thirty five years. Yes, this includes Les Miserables, Phantom, Hamilton, Rent, etc. A lot of great music to be sure, but there is something about the vulnerabilities that the characters in this show exhibit that we as human beings can understand. And relate to. We all have fears, moments of doubt. Sometimes, no, often times, we need to let others into our lives. To heal us. To love us.
On the Saturday matinee, Michael Lee Brown played the part of Evan Hansen. A fantastic Evan! And Mallory Bechtel as Zoe was adorable and wonderful. This is the show to watch in New York. And now that it is about to embark on its first American tour, I hope that you are able to watch this wonderful musical. Pasek and Paul are the new dynamic duo in the musical universe. The play by Steven Levenson is exceptional. Two and a half hours of laughter, sorrow, empathy, and hope. Yes, hope. The core of this show is hope. Forgiveness. And love.
You are not alone. You will be found.
New Mexico was, to me, one of those states on the southern border, somewhere between Texas and California. At least until a chance visit to Santa Fe. The air fare was low and the accomodations was free, so what the heck, why not. When I got there, I could not believe how beautiful the city was. And the Tex Mex or Mexican or whatever food that was there was incredible (except for the Chinese food, but even that may have improved by now). One of the greatest surprises in all my travels. Even now, I can see myself living in this town, semi arid, nestled in the mountains. The people are friendly. The arts are alive. And Santa Fe is just plain old beautiful.
And yet, the trip to New Mexico will be remembered for an even more unexpected interlude. A visit to the town of Chimayo. It is one of the few towns that dot the road from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico. At least that’s what it was on the map. And so, before driving to Taos, I did a little research on the High Road to Taos. I read some mention of a church in a small town that people from all over the world visited, in search of miraculous cures to all sorts of afflictions. Curious, I decided to drop by and visit the church. At the very least, it is an old, historic church in the mountains. It was a good photographic opportunity.
I ran into a man who was friendly and was more than happy to tell me about this special place. His name has been forgotten now, but his story is still in my head. It turns out he is a four time cancer survivor. When he first got cancer, his chances for survival was not good. Guided by faith, he went to Chimayo, took some of the soil from a room in the church (it is freely given to all who visit), and took it home with him to Chicago. He applied the soil like a balm over the afflicted area. And miracle of miracles, or so he told me, his cancer was cured. His cancer would recur three more times, in different parts of his body. Each time, he went back to Chimayo, took some soil, and each time he was cured. I asked him if he was there seeking another cure. No, he said. He was just there to give thanks for the gifts that were given him. A life to be lead, a life that he was able to use for some good, and the grace to be healed of his afflictions.
I was dumbfounded. I always associated miracles with Fatima. Or Medjugorje. Or Lourdes. Chimayo is a beautiful but unassuming town nestled in the mountains, on a road between two major tourist destinations in New Mexico. And yet, it is this town that I always think of when I think of New Mexico. There is something there, a feeling there, that I can’t explain. It’s not something metaphysical. It is this feeling of peace and joy that emanates from this small church. People may visit Chimayo in hopes of a miraculous cure to some sort of physical ailment. To me, though, it gave something else.
When I entered the church in the middle of mass, it was mostly locals attending the mass. After the mass, someone told me something that has stayed with me forever. It was a message that was surprising and uplifting. Even now, I recall the events of those few minutes spent in that church in Chimayo, of that quiet conversation. Grace can come in many ways. You don’t have to ask. Somehow, it just comes to you.
There are special places that leave you with an inner peace. A feeling that stays with you for your entire life. To me, one of those places is this church in the New Mexico mountains, in the town of Chimayo. The window pictured above is in the room that contains the miraculous soil. I can only say that what I remember most from that visit is not the window, not the church, not the town, not the mountains. It was that quiet conversation, wholly unexpected. In that moment, I felt forever blessed.