July 2004: I am nine years old, alone in the loft of a beach house somewhere in Cape May. It is the slow, muted afternoon of a family vacation—I imagine the rest of my family scattered throughout the house, my grandmother just below, eyes half-closed in front of a TV playing The Young and the Restless. The sun seems to come falling in through the semicircular window, and I feel big and alone and powerful in this room of light and dust. The TV is on, the volume low and the voices like whispers as I look through a telescope in the corner of the room. Because I can’t properly close one eye at a time, and because of the afternoon light, I find nothing of interest through the telescope except the shadow of my own eyelid blurred with the rough outline of the sun.
I find myself standing in front of the television, drawn in by the sound of someone saying “50,000 dead and up to a million homeless.” It is a PBS special about the devastation a future hurricane could bring to New Orleans. A city official walks through the French Quarter with the program’s host, armed with a surveyor’s pole. He extends the pole up to twenty-two feet, the camera pulling back to emphasize the pair’s smallness next to it. If Hurricane Ivan had made a direct hit earlier that year, the official explains, the city would have flooded as high as the pole. “We’re swimming here,” he says, “We’re like fish. If we’re alive.”
Dante’s political exile from his beloved Florence is mirrored in a greater Exile in his famous Comedy: the Pilgrimage of the fallen Man toward his transcendental Home. Dante knew his native Florence intimately, its colors, smells and sounds, but the Poet as he appears in Paradiso has never been to the highest heaven. Descriptions of sense data decrease as the poet ascends. At the very summit, Dante is forced to rely almost entirely on metaphors.
Photographer’s Statement: “Inside Windows” was taken at the “Skydeck” in Chicago. This photo conveys the feeling of displacement that people can sometimes feel within themselves, and the melancholy that often follows with this realization. Additionally, even though we can see elements of ourselves within other people, we can exist in the same place while being separated.
A novice touches the face of Christ with a paintbrush, intently adding the last drops of pigment to the wooden statue. Dutifully, she and three other women carry the Christ on their shoulders, through a chicken coop, and then outside. With some effort they balance the figure on a pedestal in the convent courtyard. Then they pray.
Pawel Pawlikowski communicates a palpable sense of fragility in this opening scene of his film Ida. The director lets us know that what we hold closest, what we believe is most real, is precarious. Our identities — the beliefs we hold about our past and our future — can, with the slightest push in the right place, collapse around us.
The Shape of Empty
It is too warm for February. The awful smell of misplaced airs seeps through open windows, is driven along halls by small talk about the weather, and arrives like a threat at my door. I shut the door to my office, blocking this spring out of place. It is cold here in the winter, or at least that is the usual working of things.
I teach Faulkner in February, so that we all must look out upon a dead sky drained of heat and understand our distance from the hot working sweat of Yoknapatawpha. This came to be years ago, when a football player in my class sighed in the middle of a discussion of As I Lay Dying. We had been talking about Addie’s impossible line: I would hate my father for ever having planted me. A girl with that young smooth easy skin leaned back in her chair and asked why Addie was so sad. That was when he sighed, deliberate and loud, resting his hand big and steady on the cover of his book. I leaned in, asking if he had anything he wanted to say.
“I stand upon my desk to remind [myself] that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” – John Keating, Dead Poets Society
We human beings are creatures of rhythm and contrast, but we think statically.
We are used to questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you do?” as if one thing will become the answer for perpetuity. This type of thinking shapes, and is shaped, by static images of who we are. But these static images don’t fit our real lives. At least they shouldn’t.
Photographer’s Statement: This collection of photographs explores the visions and places of home. There is beauty in the transience of the places we’ve called home: while we are not often privileged to plant ourselves in one lifelong home, the places of our childhood remain joyfully rooted in the depths of our memories. These snapshots capture a few of the fleeting details which decorate the permanent landscape of a childhood home.
“The worst things humans suffer is homelessness; we must endure this life because of desperate hunger; we endure, as migrants with no home.” Odysseus says this as he travels homeward-bound to Ithaca in Homer’s The Odyssey.
In contemplating this passage, I began to wonder at the burden that a home can seem to be, as much as it can also seem like a haven. Being a stranger in some foreign place can feel a good deal like being displaced, and returning to a childhood home can feel equally unsettling. Places that were once home can become as foreign through the passage of time as distant countries, and it seems as if this consequence is irreversible. And so, if we are, as Odysseus says, “migrants with no home” — what use is it to contemplate our lack of one?