On the first day of my first metaphysics class, the professor asked a student to count the objects in the room. She confidently totted up the people, the desks, and had started working on the whiteboards and pens when he interrupted her. “What about the chair legs?” She looked perplexed for a moment. “Or the screws holding the legs to the seats? What about every strand of hair on every person’s head? What about the atoms that make up the desk? It’s not so easy,” he concluded as her face reddened in embarrassment, “to say what an object is.” His statement struck me with the force of revelation, a new way of seeing the world.
Around the same time I began a semi-serious meditative practice. One hot late night on my parents’ front porch I sat idly strumming my guitar, trying to keep my mind clear and my body reasonably cool, watching the neighbor down the street playing pool, alone. He had a reputation as an unpleasant, perhaps dangerous, eccentric – and in fact some years later the bomb disposal squad was called to remove grenades of dubious stability from the bedroom – but that night he was just a lean, weathered man with thinning hair and a pool cue, planning his shots, moving into and out of light and shadow, into and out of the open doorway that for this one brief moment gave me a glimpse of his life as he lived it.
And the asphalt between us became not a road but an artery, not dividing but connecting us – us and all the other sleeping, darkened houses in our little Lakewood neighborhood, and the other adjacent neighborhoods, and beyond. The possums waddling on the sidewalks, the birds sleeping in the trees, the trees themselves – I was certain, for one brief moment, that on some level none of us were different – from each other, from anyone or anything. It was a new way of seeing the world.
While the focus of metaphysics is on what makes an object an object, and meditation (at least the kind I practice) about blurring the hard line between subject (me) and object (everything else), photography pushes me to look for subjects everywhere. This, too, is a new way of seeing. It’s all too easy to lose a sense of novelty and wonder about life – to slide down the slope of thinking, “I’ve read a book like this before, I’ve tasted food like this before, I’ve walked beneath redwoods or along beaches or through fields of lupine like this before.”
Photography jolts me out of that lassitude. Even in the places I’ve walked a hundred times, there’s always something new. The cherry tree may bloom every spring, but this morning, in this light, this flower glows in a certain magical way. The towhees may raise their young in the yard every year, but this hatchling has a crown of feathers and a puckered face that make him look like a tiny, grumpy Caesar. Every object becomes a potential subject, foreground instead of background, pregnant with individuality.
Out of town for Mother’s Day, my husband and I took a Sunday morning drive to Del Valle Regional Park in Livermore to get Guinness a little exercise. The day was hot, the mid-morning light harsh and unforgiving, and we almost left the cameras in the car. But we took them, and I was glad of it, because instead of spending all my time thinking about the heat and the glare and the dust (although I did spend a little of it that way), my attention was largely focused on wildflowers and lichen and lizards.
The lens drew my eye to things I hadn’t seen before: monkey flowers, Ithuriel’s Spear, an endangered checkerspot butterfly. And when I came home and loaded my photos into Lightroom – cropping and zooming in, wrestling with many, many blown out highlights and the fact that I’d forgotten to change my camera’s white balance from incandescent back to outdoors – I saw some things I hadn’t even seen on the walk.
That the checkerspot butterfly has a strange, wild eye. That one of the asters appeared trapped in a spiderweb. That what I thought was a single small, pollen-dusted beetle was actually two, sharing a noonday tryst. And the focus for what I intended to be a pleasing triad of Ithuriel’s Spear blossoms abruptly shifted when I spied a set of spider legs peeking out from the rightmost petals.
It wasn’t the best day’s shooting I’ve ever had. But it turned a hot, dusty walk into one that was interesting, and surprising, even after I came back home. Full of objects, becoming subjects.