This I Believe

Walter - Portland, Oregon
Entered on May 11, 2006

It’s 3 AM on a Wednesday, somewhere in rural Georgia, the summer of 2001. My girlfriend Luce is lying chest down and eyes forward in the middle of a country road, camera in hand, attempting to frame the best possible shot of the center-line divider.

She’s taking forever.

I’m safely spread out on the hood of my parked car, fighting off sleep and studying her intently; filled with a mixture of frustration, concern, and, yes, grudging admiration. But at last I can indulge her artistic proclivities no more:

“Luce, would you just take the picture so we can go already?” I yell out.

“In a minute.” She says, never taking her eyes off the road.

It had been like this the entire time she was in town. We’d have to pull over in the middle of no-man’s land somewhere so she could snap a pic of some crooked flower growing near a fence post, or some little kids running down the street (who were always flabbergasted, incidentally, as to why a strange young Korean woman wanted to take their picture.) We were even thrown out of a laundromat once, because she insisted on recording every single detail of the tumbling pinwheels of dirty underwear.

Maybe it was being a visitor from another part of the country, or just being more perceptive to what’s around you, but everything that in my world was mundane and invisible was to her a thing of effortless, accidental beauty. An empty parking lot might as well have been the Sistine Chapel; a towering Wal-Mart sign the Eiffel Tower.

At the time however, I was less concerned with her photographic attachment to telephone poles and fire hydrants as I was with her attachment to me. It was a long distance relationship, and I thought we were spending too much of our limited time together taking pictures, and not enough of it doing important things; like having intense, pull-your-hair-out sex.

But now, with our relationship long since undone by the same distance that had once made it so intense, I’m thankful she was such a paparazzi of minutiae. Today, for the first time in years, I looked back on one of the photo journals she’d mailed me, not long after one of those tear-filled airport goodbyes. Contained there are images of things so ordinary that they read like the contents of a trash can: An old receipt, a headless doll, a newspaper clipping, a ripped note from an old boyfriend.

But context is everything, and viewed by understanding eyes, those same images become objects of intense emotional power — even now they call up memories so vivid as to be almost overwhelming.

And they teach something too. The quiet moments captured by her camera, the commonplace, the boring — these are the things that constitute the bulk of our lives. And we’re content to let them flutter away, dismissing them as routine, waiting patiently for something exciting to happen. But contained in those traffic jams, in those waiting rooms, in those checkout lines, is — as Luce intuitively understood — everything.

There’s an old Schopenhauer quote that I used to be fond of spouting off back in those days, in which he equated the ennui of everyday existence with being nothing more than the visceral experience of the meaninglessness of life. But now, I think he got it wrong.

On every block, in every bar, in every suburb and apartment complex, there are happening right this minute a million little adventures, and romances, and tragedies, and comedies: played out in miniature, hidden from the wider world, and the history books, and the newspapers. A small catch destined to be casually tossed overboard, and consigned to the still waters of memory, where after they may only be seen sinking fast to the bottom, if at all.

Dinner with family, a quick kiss on the cheek, a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, a walk down the road, holding someones hand…these are fractions of our lives, easy to take for granted because they seem so everyday, because they announce themselves in such small voices as to be barely heard. But they add up to a whole far greater than the sum of their parts.

“There, I’m done.” Luce proclaimed, dusting the bits of gravel off her shirt.

“Finally!” I groaned, as we both piled in the car.

Sensing my crankiness, she didn’t speak for most of the trip back home. Feeling bad, I broke the silence:

“You know Luce, it’s just a road.”

“I know.” She said, turning to watch the streetlights zip past.