When I was a girl, we took the same family trip each summer — to the beaches of South Carolina. There was never any thought of going someplace new, never a desire to see or experience any more of this world than the parts we had come to consider “home.” The beaches filled our souls with exactly what was missing after a year of following city pursuits, and we lapped it up and settled back contentedly on the sand. We weren’t seekers in those days; we were replenishers who never misplaced the name of the tonic, and the tonic never failed us.
By the time I hit college, I began to yearn for another home — New Orleans, the city of my birth. And so arose the occasional side trip to reconnect with a farther flung part of my psyche — roadtrips of the long haul variety — booster shots of sidewalk jazz, oily muffulettas, and the incomprehensible accents that burgeon where cultures commingle with the passions particular to steamy intemperate zones. New Orleans was in my blood and, more importantly, my psychological makeup. Every now and then polite society became a little too much, or maybe a little too little (in the way of living), and the thrill of reconnecting with volatile, vivacious, intense emoters called me to a bone-deep home where my every mood swing and caprice could be celebrated as an occasion for a few sweet beignets. In New Orleans, as at the ocean, I knew who I was, and it was good.
When I married, my husband and I took a winter trip to Vermont and Canada. But as much as I thought I wanted to see the Great White North and Proliferance of Pointy Trees, I began to feel the tug back toward my southern compass point almost immediately. I couldn’t get my balance aimed in this new direction. The scenery was spectacularly white and wet and gusty, but I couldn’t get the feel of “me” there. We left three days early, anxious to return to something more familiar where bearings came easily and our thoughts were practiced and comfortable. We went home, and I stayed home for the next thirteen years.
And then one day I found myself inside a pair of hiking boots standing on the rocky shore of Maine with my sister. It was early September, and I was halfway along the road back from a deep depression. I was far away from home, far away from my husband and children, in a strange place in a strange state of mind with no idea where my life was heading.
And it happened like this: I woke up.
The trip didn’t cure me, but that sense of isolation and emptiness made room for me to drink in sights and sensations that seemed amplified a hundredfold. I became a photographer that week, learning to honor the folds and curls and tears in each petal of a sunflower head bigger than my own, and the etched path of long ago rains moving in myriad directions down the weathered wood of roadside barns. I used my camera like the eye of God, witnessing and celebrating whatever I found. And through a lens, I learned to see: not the majesty of mountains or the infinity of the sea, but the detail, the minutiae, the insignificances that come together to create the glorious whole that is glorious only because of each tiny, imperfect participant in this life.
And a fire lit in me to see it all.