on finding words in a maelstrom/

It’s been a while since I shared anything on this blog. Any inclination to do so in the last months has been countered by immobilising counter arguments. Also a deepening proclivity for just keeping to myself. The arguments have been less a question of not having things to share (I’ve shot at least a dozen rolls in the last few months), and more a case of che importa. 

I wrote a long piece at the end of last year/start of this year, about trying to shrug off the “heavy wet coat of 2021”. I wasn’t so naïve to think that this year would be the greatest year that ever was, but I had minor hopes and dreams for sure. Nothing mad, nothing crazy. What I didn’t expect was that this year would be a continuation of a sort of prolonged state of (existential) crisis that inflicted itself upon us back in 2020. 

It’s been an emotionally overwhelming, crisis-heavy, blow-upon-blow year. A year of looking on with abject horror, frustrated anger, and complete and helpless disbelief at times.  

Somali-British writer Warsan Shire’s words come to mind:

“I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.” 

There have been times this year that have felt like a weird fever dream. I’ve cried spontaneously at news reports countless times. And I’ve found myself needing to withdraw from it completely sometimes. To bury my head in the sand. Not without pangs of guilt. 

//

Monday last week (10 Oct 2022) was World Mental Health Day [I actually started writing this on the day]. How is this relevant to a photography blog, you (didn’t) ask? Well, everything is connected in a way. 

There are the many griefs of the world. And then there are our own personal griefs. It’s often really hard to verbalise these more personal things. Our most acute heartaches. The collective grief is obvious.

/

Spring is usually my favourite time of year, when everything comes alive again after a long, dark winter. I was looking forward to it; ready to follow suit. But it turned out to be a quite painful time of the year for me. Nothing wounds us in quite the same way as the things nearest to us. Door handles at hip height.  

I felt numbed by a sort of analgesic disbelief that lasted whole weeks. And then fully bled out. 

I started sinking rather helplessly into borderline hermitude. Weighed down by an all-encompassing sadness. An uninvited house guest. Always hovering. Crowding me. Cloaking me throughout the extreme heat of summer. Marred, but for the ever grace of nature. The only forever balm. 

August was torture. A hugely stressful time. And outside, the world was literally burning. 

/

Something changed acutely in my photographer’s eye during this time. Previously, I never felt more present and keenly observant than when I was walking with (or even without) my camera. But for the past few months (especially over summer), the edges of everything I saw so clearly before have been blurred somehow. My body has felt like it is on autopilot sometimes, with me trailing somewhere behind it. Emotionally fatigued.

I’m not unaware that this feeling of detachment is probably an involuntary coping mechanism. The results of a sort of empath shutdown (see notes above). I’ve found it disquieting. Because I really, really like noticing things. And feeling connected to the things I see.  

/

I have to pause here and say, as I sit here editing this a week after I started writing it, I feel “ok actually”. I was out with my camera both days over the weekend. I felt so present (for the first time in ages). The autumn sun and breeze was beautiful. I had an interesting interaction today as well, photographing a retiree; watching him pack up his life. It was sad, but beautiful. An end of an era.

When I wrote this last week though, I was in this state of heightened emotion, and had to be honest with myself about how I felt, and have been feeling on and off for a prolonged period of time. The awareness day gave pause for it. Of course, reading it back now it feels “exaggerated”, but it really wasn’t. 

/

Throughout these months, a few forgiving friends politely excused the low-key melancholic air. Didn’t take my withdrawal personally. Listened with patience to my efforts to untangle my feelings. All in kindness. And though I couldn’t hand them this thing in my chest, and say “here, can you hold this for a while, it’s hurting (me) a fair bit”, they were still there. 

What their kindness can’t cure/replace is this feeling sometimes, this fear, that I have lost something important. And I cannot get it back. And I miss it. 

I saw a random quote (from an apparently shitty YA novel) earlier this year that kind of captures it:

“It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.”

I really, really don’t think I am the only one who feels like this sometimes. I think a lot of people do. Is there a comfort in this? I don’t know.

//

It’s an agonising feeling to not be able to express your thoughts and feelings about things. Or share the small, but interesting/amusing daily minutiae of life. Not everything is deep, but the comfort found in personal connections and exchanges is. Feeling people get you. Understand what is important to you in life. 

I sometimes feel that I store up words and thoughts for days and weeks, in times I’ve been withdrawn. 

A few weeks ago when I was in a taxi coming home from the airport, everything erupted from me. Life, the universe, everything. Just observations. The driver was a kind and receptive man who shared some nice words of his own. This brief, open, human connection with a stranger, is something I’ve written about a few times on this page and elsewhere. 

It’s weird how easy it feels to be so open and vulnerable with a stranger, but how needlessly hard conversations closer to home can feel. How impossible it can feel to find the words sometimes. To rehearse it over and over and over, and still say nothing. And then it’s 11pm, and you think maybe tomorrow. I’ve been trying for months now to say “Not great, thanks.” 

This post was inspired by Mental Health Awareness Day. Inspired by my own feelings and the people I see around me. People crying on the train. People who go AWOL themselves. The guy with the posh voice and the sleeping bag cloak outside the station. People who feel worried by everything happening in the world right now. It’s an homage to people who don’t tell people in pain to suck it up/get over it. it’s an homage to people who know kindness is free. It’s an homage to nature. It’s an homage to fellow empaths who feel everything. I’m sure I’ll delete it before anyone can read it. But that’s okay. Eventually I’ll make other posts and share my work again. For now I just tried to find some words in a maelstrom.  

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