It’s early autumn and I miss my delinquent desert again. For the waning days where its light softens and the fields fill up with yellow chamisa blooms. For the time of the year when sunflowers line every roadside, for the way the blue sky extends and becomes bigger somehow, than seems possible, kaleidoscopes of sunlight filling up your eyes. This time around though, my third fall in New England—two thousand miles away, I am savoring the coming autumn weather here as well. The colors will become bright in hues of red, orange and yellow and the city will get ever so slightly quieter. How to hold these two things at once, I wonder. This lovely Sunday morning I do it by taking my little Nia out for a morning walk in the park and paying special attention to the contrast of blue sky against Sycamore leaves falling. The dew sitting perfectly on each blade of grass, the sweetness of a sunny September morning.
Later, I come back to the house, peek in on my beautifully sleeping boyfriend, and put a kettle on. I open the blinds to feel the blessing of sun coming in the windows. And yet, as I ground myself in this moment, this place, I still see a different landscape laid over it as if on a screen in the back of my eyes.
One of my favorite photographers created these layers too, capturing the sensation of that secret corridor between place and body and memory, in the movement of 8MM gelatin.
When I was a kid, he used to make these home movies. They don’t make that film anymore, they probably don’t make film at all anymore, I wouldn’t know since I’ve ‘gone digital’ sadly. My whole childhood, he would have that little hand held camera out, documenting. Its little hum and whir seemed regular and mundane in the passage of my early childhood days. But what he was looking for was, something special. The way my stepdad saw us, our lives, has done more than probably anything to shape my own conception of the way that the world of my past actually looks, was. Instead of just filming once, or taking a photograph once, he would put the film back into the camera and take a whole series of shots over the first one. Sometimes he would do two or even three extra exposures. It’s a technique they teach you in beginning photography classes but I’ve never seen anyone make such effective use of it.
What this simple technique meant was that you might be looking at a scene of my mother, bending over to take my hand and lead me across a river, and then suddenly, you see a sunrise coming out of our chests, or the yellow, ticker tape stripes of a long highway, intersecting the river, shadowy and rhythmic. The distant forms of mountains from a trip to Montana and me bending over a drawing, together as if both moments existed side by side. Some images in the film were ghostlike and under exposed. Others burst forth, bright and distinct. We became characters in a landscape of imagination and wonder, as if we were somehow beings aware that the world must exist on multiple planes at once. As if we could reveal to the viewer, the other world inside of this one. You might see my childhood eyes, staring at the camera, peeking out from under early morning covers and then a thunderstorm crashing in across the vastness of a desert mesa. Next, a scene of our dog running down the road after our car, and a tree waving in the wind underneath her feet. Every image, moving, shifting, mysteriously becoming a part of another thing that suggested it might have been inside all along.
I formed my own conceptions of what it felt like in those years but it is those pictures, moving and still that are, for all intents and purposes, my visual memory. In fact, those that were not captured on film, in my mind, are perfectly manufactured in the same visual tableau. The day my stepdad left, in our new house in town. Sitting in the sunroom, with a shag carpet, all of us crying. And I see over our huddled and awkward bodies, flitters of the film ending, the bright flashes that come at the conclusion of a roll, before the projector makes its ticking sputter of termination. Does that mean that even my own memories are artificial? Manufactured? Or are they simply augmented somehow by the grainy gelatin of a 8MM camera? I’m sure Barthes has something to say about this. About how things get represented, and then filtered and then anchored. How we lose perspective in the very act of seeing, of storing images away for the future. How time changes both the things we would forget and the things we want to hold onto. How the maker of the image, and the viewer together create meaning by the act of seeing.
And so this world of my childhood was, in turn, fantastical. As the early modernist photographers asserted, who says that photographs should look like paintings anyway? Who says they should even look real? When we would watch these films, there was often music to listen by too. It was classical or a tape with a worn label “Shadowfax” or sometimes the piano music of our neighbor Gretchen called “Clouds on the Mountain.” We would snuggle in on pillows on a pine floor with popcorn and watch the magical world of ourselves, the things we might hide from our own eyes in the body of the world.
Somewhere I still have those films. They are in a storage shed I think. The projector is broken. I’m not sure anyone else in the world would even care to see them. Much like memory, they are nostalgic and exist more perfectly in the movie theater of my own mind. What is past is past. What is broken remains so. My family is another negligible heartbreak and a series of motions that equal moving on, growing up, letting go. We don’t live in that house anymore. We don’t have a garden on that land or my mom’s pink roses. What we were is a wasteland now. Our home is, in fact, empty and decaying slowly in the dry desert heat. I often dream I am inside of it. And I wander the rooms alone. Sometimes a flood takes it, or a fire. Sometimes it crashes to the ground in an unseen wind. Sometimes it is utterly silent. And before my eyes, they are all happening at once; all leading to each other. Our friends are building the house again, or we are younger, or my mother and stepfather are getting married again and I am throwing rose petals in a pink and white dress; then the house is falling and I am older and alone. Each image melts into the next, and emerges from it, unveiling what was hidden, and what is possible.