Finite perspective

As of three nights ago, I’ve begun the long-overdue process of posting my travel photos and sketches to flickr. While we were traveling, this seemed so irrelevant, I was considering not even bothering with flickr anymore. But now that I’ve started uploading, it feels so satisfying to be cataloguing and sharing my photos and artwork in yet another way.

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At first I was thinking this reflects the big difference between an active, nomadic lifestyle and a reflective, stationary one. Then I realized it also has to do with finity (er, finiteness. Why does no one ever say finity, when we talk about infinity all the time?). As long as we were still traveling, I was still generating more photos, which meant the task of uploading them could potentially go on forever. Now, on the other hand, there is an end in sight — which is probably why I greet the task with enthusiasm, rather than dread.

I seem to remember that when I was very young, I asked my mom why we have to die, and she said it’s because we appreciate life more when we know it has to end. At the time I thought it a stupid answer, but now I agree.* On an obliquely related note, as Natalie Goldberg and Hemingway agreed in the piece I linked the other day, we can’t write about something when we’re in the middle of it.** And then on the other hand, there is the Zen attitude that nothing truly has a beginning or end; we are always in transition.

There are many different takes on beginnings, endings, and middles, but it’s undeniably true that the way I write/think/catalog our travels is completely different depending whether I am in the moment and on the spot, or at home and looking back. Certain things can only be done in the now: in the life and atmosphere of a place and its specific time, in my own self at that moment. Given that, I really regret that I did not spend every day of our travels out with my sketchbook, paints, and journal. I should have sat daily at sidewalks and drawn the passersby: the way they dressed, what they were carrying, the way they stood and conversed and shopped. I should have painted the storefronts, the table settings in restaurants, the street signs, the street cats. I should have made word pictures of the talk and traffic sounds and the smells in the air. I did try — as you know if you’ve read my posts — but I deeply regret that I did not do this more.

At the same time, however, I knew, even while we were traveling, that I was going to regret this. We visited nine countries and twice as many cities/regions; impossible for me not to regret, leaving each place, that I didn’t document it better. But I could not. Contrary to what I used to think, we do not simply see — do not simply blink, like a camera, and capture every detail of a scene. A camera doesn’t have to think about what it captures, but we do, and so, to avoid overwhelm, our brains pick and choose. This is how our senses can become deadened when we spend too much time among the familiar; with little to pick out, we stop really seeing what’s in front of us. When we go someplace new, our “travel eyes” pick up so much more, but it’s overpowering; we’re dazzled.

It takes time to know what we see. Is this amazing, or merely new to me? Will the freshness fade with time, or will I always find it remarkable? Why is this done the way it is, and would I find it as interesting if I knew the reason? When I first get to a place, I can record overarching impressions, but if I were to go around really trying to record every detail, I’d drown. Since I don’t know what I’m seeing, I don’t know what to leave out — and as all artists know, what we leave out is just as important (maybe more so) than what we include.*** So while I truly regret not documenting more, I’m also very aware that I couldn’t have done much more than I did. It is a bittersweet feeling.

Another sad thing is that I can’t just go back, either. I seem to remember Lisa Stowe and I had a conversation about this in the comments on one of my posts or hers. I could go back to where I visited, but I will not find the places of my memory. They will have changed, and I have changed. Even the San Francisco of my recent visit was not the SF of my 2011 IWL summer, or our other many day trips to the city. Of course that can be a pleasure too, especially when introducing places to friends (seeing things doubly afresh, through my new eyes and theirs for the first time), but it is not the same as the first time. That particular magic is, ultimately, not quite capturable, not quite holdable, just like the finity of life itself.

Kamogawa (Kamo River), Kyoto

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*There’s also a fantastic story about this in David Eagleman’s wonderful book, Sum.

**Does that mean our best writing occurs posthumously? Discuss.

***This seems a very Japanese perspective as well.