I’m lying in bed in the castle at Rosemont College, in the room I’ve come to call the princess room, because I lived here for a while when I was writer in residence, and I was alone in the castle a lot, and it was easier to think of myself as a princess in a castle than as a screwed up writer living alone in a big historic house that may or not be haunted, and also because the room in question is beautiful and covered in pink flowers and lace, and well, it’s in a freaking castle.
Also, every time I come to Rosemont, I feel like a princess, because its program director, Carla Spataro, and its faculty and its students treat me with more kindness and generosity and genuine love than I’ve experienced just about anywhere.
The Rosemont Writer’s Retreat ended yesterday, though I’ve managed to book myself a student consultation the day after the retreat, because a student needed to talk to me about her manuscript, and I was out of official slots, and I’m super lousy at saying no when my students need me. (I’m ok being that kind of lousy. My students are precious to me.) I’m slightly hungover, which is rare for me these days, but I was up with the sun anyway, because my body decided long ago that sleep is for sissies. I feel lucky to be here, lucky in a way that is hard to express without poetry and pigeons (the kind with rainbows hidden beneath their feathers) and maybe a Mariachi band. In about a month, I’ll start teaching in Rosemont’s MFA program officially, though I’ve been a thesis adviser and on and off face-to-face faculty for about five years.
Last night, I drank whiskey on the porch of Gracemere, a beautiful, historic house in which all of the major retreat events take place. I was surrounded by fellow faculty and students, otherwise known as friends, and fireflies flitted about being miraculous (I will never get over the miracle of fireflies), and the love in the air was palpable. Rosemont is called that (I think) because it’s sort of on the top of a hill, and as cheesy as it sounds, to me it feels epically beautiful in a Holy Mount Zion kind of way. It has been one of my shelters in the storm of the past five years, during which I’ve lived on the road and sorted my proverbial shit out.
There is a stone Mary set into the cathedral that stands just outside the castle, and she features heavily in the memoir I’m writing about my years on the road, which I’ve titled Butterfly Song. She’s been one of my best friends since the first time I came here. When I lived on campus for a semester, I was often alone in the castle at night, and I would go outside and sit under a luminescent moon, which I imagined was a jellyfish floating in an ocean of sky. I would whisper my secrets to Mary, and she would hear me, and heal me.
I’ve taught and spoken in many places all over America, and in Europe and Mexico too, and Rosemont has something I haven’t found anywhere else. Rosemont feels like home, or at least like part of my home, though I’m starting to figure out my heart’s home is a jigsaw puzzle, and little pieces of it are scattered all over the world.
Last night, elated by the joy of sharing art and heart with so many like-minded souls for a week (and also maybe a little extra elated by lots of whiskey and some exquisite wine Charles Holdefer carted over from Belgium), I chased a frog through underbrush with New Zealand writer Jillian Sullivan and Philadelphia essayist and poet Kristina Moriconi.
I’m not going to play at false humility here. I think I captured the essence of the frog beautifully, in spite of my inebriated condition. “You’re chasing it away!” Kristina kept saying as I tripped after the plucky little amphibian with my phone, trying to get his photo. Kristina didn’t get my process, didn’t understand what it takes to eke this kind of genius from a photographic experience.
But I’m a pro at chasing animals through vegetation and capturing photos that would blow the mind of even the most intrepid National Geographic photographer. I hate to brag, but I think the proof of my words is in the proverbial pudding (below).
I call this Intimate Portrait of an Amphibian (Captured While Good and Shnockered), but you can frame it in whatever words move you. Its impact is, I know, sweeping and deeply personal. It’s hard to argue that I didn’t capture everything that really mattered about that frog. It’s not just like looking at his face(ish) through the window of a speeding car as he’s riding in the other direction on a fast train in a torrential rain. It’s like looking into his very soul.
I think I’m qualified to say that photography isn’t just about the photographer. It’s not a monologue. It’s a conversation with the viewer. It’s me saying, “When I looked at this terrified, fleeing frog while I was super drunk, this is what I saw, but now, I’m giving the reins to you. The experience isn’t mine anymore, it’s yours, beloved photography aficionado. Make of it what you will.” As I said, this sort of photographic genius isn’t new to me, which is probably why I’m so good at just putting my art out into the world and letting it be, you know, without trying to impose my own meaning on it, without trying to control the viewer’s relationship with my work.
Why, just last week, I was in my mother’s home in the New Mexico mountains, writing on my computer, drinking coffee. I looked up to see a mountain lion staring at me through the window. Most people would be like, “Eek, a lion, I’d better stay indoors,” but being deeply committed to the art of photography (and kinda dumb), I jumped up to grab her photo. She ran, and I leapt outside and chased her through the woods. Thanks to my idiocy and dedication, I was able to capture this stunning evidence of her existence. (No stupid writers were eaten during the making of this photographic masterpiece.)
It’s safe to say I captured everything she was–her beauty, her majesty, her fierceness, her strength. I’m quite sure that any day now, Rosemont is going to call me to let me know they’ve decided I should probably be teaching nature photography instead of writing because, well, look at this shit. You don’t see photos like this every day. You just don’t.
Anyway, my new life has begun. I’ve been living on the road for five years now, homeless for all intents and purposes, though when my son was in a horrible accident and my mother got cancer and my brother and daughter went through divorces, and my brother also died twice from a heart attack (and was revived, thank God), I started spending more and more time on my New Mexico mountain with my family.
I lived on the road to heal. I knew when the healing was done, the universe would show me the place I was to put down some roots, and it has. I’m here in Philadelphia for a year. The beautiful Kristina and her wonderful husband Steve have given me a gorgeous apartment to live in, and I already have some personal décor to place in it, thanks to the generosity of my students. This beautiful succulent was bought for me by the gorgeous Kourtney Gush, who writes incredible poems about aliens and outer space and magic. It kinda looks like an alien, and I love that, because every time I look at it, it will remind me of her amazeballs writing.
And this breathtaking wall hanging was made by the brilliant Sam Talucci, who writes and sews and paints and plays the guitar. He gave it to me on the porch last night, ostensibly as a thank you for my teaching, but I think he really was moved to generosity by the profound beauty of my frog photography.
Anyway, I’m happy. I’m in a place that feels like one of my homes (though can we get my family shipped here, because I miss the hell out of them), and I probably should get my butt up and moving because it’s never cool to show up to a student consultation naked. People don’t put up with that kind of shit from anyone, not even intrepid world class photographers like myself. I guess I just wanted to take some time before I showered and brushed my teeth to say that this week was one of the best of my life.
Oh, and because I’m all over the map (I blame the frogs, the fireflies, and the whiskey), I should add that a few nights ago, one of my best friends, Beth Kephart, read a piece about the miracle of Bruce Springsteen (I will never get over the miracle of Bruce Springsteen) at her reading, and I cried my heart out, because she captured, really captured the essence of not only Bruce, but of the magic of music, and of life, in a way that punched me in the face (in the best way possible—a loving, ain’t-life-grand kind of punch). Afterward, she’d told me she’d chosen to read that piece because she knew how much I loved Bruce, which made the whole experience even more beautiful. And that’s just kinda how it is around here. I get doused in love everywhere I turn.
I walked to the castle barefoot after her reading, watching fireflies flash, feeling utterly loved, utterly whole, utterly—well, if I keep saying utterly, I’ll start thinking about cows, and then I’ll have to go find some poor bovine to chase through vegetation so I can capture her essence with my photographic prowess. So I’ll shut up with the utterly stuff.
But I guess what I’m saying is I’m a really great photographer, and I feel very fucking loved.