Thursday, June 3, 2010

Where Is Everybody?

A couple of weeks ago I was looking through some old photos in order to rustle up some inspiration for a "Happy Birthday" post I'd planned on writing for my dear father, not that I need inspiration, really, but I figured browsing through snapshots of my childhood might help me recall a particular moment, something from which to launch my essay. Of course, the search that might have taken a half-hour or so is still in progress; mostly due to my predisposition for waxing poetic over every single photo, which might not sound like a medical condition, but BELIEVE ME, IT IS.

Sidetracked? Yes, I am. You see, a couple years back, during a bout of pregnancy-induced hyperorganizationitis (also a medical condition),  I decided to distill my gigantic box-o-pictures by staging an elimination process so cutthroat that only the strong/beautiful/able to speak a thousand words were left standing. In addition to eliciting the best and brightest, I also cast out any photos that, were I the subject of such unflattering light or clothing selection, would want shredded and/or burned. It doesn't matter if the person once peed in your shampoo bottle, or never paid for dinner, or pinched your cheeks and called you chubby until you were 27-if you own a photo where this person's unibrow is the shot's defining artistic element, then the good and righteous thing to do is get rid of it. So they've double-crossed you--who cares? By doing the right thing with your arch-rival's unbecoming mug, you're initiating a cycle of good, one you can only hope results in your finding random piles of cash and jewelry. Okay, maybe not quite, but at least you get the prize of a well-edited photo library, with the added clean-conscience bonus. Kind of a "tastes great, less filling" situation, if you will.

So-my collection of photos is truly special--each shot feels like my favorite. And I love perusing them in bed, propped up on pillows with my knees drawn chest-high. I balance the box of pictures there and get lost in the looking back. Every now and then my children come in to ask why my eyes are "all shiny", or, more often, "who the little boy is, mommy?" Yes, I admit it's kind of a drag to have to remind them that no, Mommy wasn't a boy when she was little. She just thought that her haircut was awesome, even if it was an almost-mullet with a half-grown out perm, even if ponytails were not an option until she was 16.  That's all, kids, move along. Actually, this could explain why I'm ponied up nearly every day; now that my hair's finally past my earlobes and nobody calls me "young man" anymore.

It's been no easy task finding my footing among these memories. There are so many absurd and sad and beautiful emotions captured that I've had to put the B-Day post off for a bit. Sorry, Pops. I just can't decide. But do you remember this? For most of you out there, the photo above is, at first glance, just another family snapshot, in front of another nondescript house on what could have been any day in the 1980's. But there is a story.  I was there in the photo. And that's my mom and my sister beside me, and on the other side of my mom is my cousin: her brother's son, and next to me is my uncle, from my dad's side--my father's sister's husband, only I'm thinking they might have been freshly divorced in this photo (my aunt and my uncle) which makes me wonder-how did we all end up piled in the car together, driving like hell to take part in the human chain known as Hands Across America? And where was everybody else?

I can still sing the song-which was backed by Toto and featured the vocals of a couple "session singers", famously anonymous voices with no faces or strings attached. For me, this was as good as it got: love in the time of USA for Africa-- pop music and charity; simulcasting and strife. So what if "Hands" rode the coattails of "We Are The World"? For a child whose favorite game of make-believe involved eating dinner in the solitude of her bedroom/servant's quarters by the light of a plug-in Christmas candle, these songs and their causes affected me in ways bordering on psychotropic. And whenever the opportunity presented itself, I'd steal upstairs in secret with that cassette player,  entering the celebrity-studded alternate universe where hope and heartache co-mingled, where I could sing along into the spatula with all my might, me and Lionel Richie united in our longing.

The event's premise, for my readers who weren't yet born, or for those who were born into families for whom "quality time" was a picnic at the zoo or minor league baseball game, can be found here. Basically, you paid ten dollars to stand in a line that would, theoretically, stretch from one side of the United States to another, while every radio station in the country, all at once, played the custom-penned song, simultaneously eliminating hunger. Or something like that. It was complicated. Did it work? Um, I don't really think so. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume we didn't pay the requisite entry fee. And you know,  I really don't remember much about the actual joining of hands-part, either. I do remember feeling it was appropriate to dress patriotically, though effervescently, hence the devil-may-care red bandana. I don't remember singing on the side of this road, or the buzz from being part of a coast-to-coast human chain. In fact, when I close my eyes and try to see that day, what I mostly see is gray. I see myself looking down the road and squinting, trying to find the next pod of crazy do-gooders, wondering how we'll ever get close enough to touch.

Isn't it funny how in some pictures, what you don't see is the real memory?

This year has been a doozy in terms of community. Finding it, losing it, defining it. Longing for it. In a few years, or maybe twenty-five, I wonder what I'll think when I see pictures of this? This time in the world, this time in my own corner of it? Will the pictures show us stretching our hands out, hoping to meet the grip of like-minded hope? Or will I look back and wonder: where is everybody? Walking out of the experience, before the negatives have even had time to dry, I can already see that there is more to the story than has been captured on film. And I can't wait to find out what it all means. Until then, I look again at this old picture, and all this stuff that's going on for us right now...and it feels really big and significant; the shortage of people on the road as stark as a gray Midwestern afternoon. And I'm  squinting in effort to find the do-gooders. But wait: look deeper and see that I'm standing with them. Those people beside me, close enough to touch. An extra-short chain with its own share of strife, and hope enough to spare. And no matter what, we hold on tight. Now-that picture's worth a thousand words and do-gooders.


Andrea said...

I CANNOT get rid of photographs. I take thousands, always thinking I'll go through and delete some, but I never can. I always get sentimental, and think, "this picture can never be taken again..."or I am hypnotized by some random background item that rummages up memories that I'm afraid I'll lose if I don't keep THAT picture. That is to say, I am envious of your ability to get rid.

kbreints said...

What a great post! But i have to echo the first commenter-- I have a very hard time throwing a picture away...bc of this I will just not print them if I am not in love with it, but I do have them tucked away in files on my hard drive... for just such a bribery moment.