Background

When I wake up, it takes me a minute to work out where the house is parked. With the shades down, the inside of the place always looks the same. It’s a small, 14-by-6 feet space that requires everything to have its place or it feels cramped. So even the clutter – the hats and the gloves, the cups and my water bottle, the notebooks and the laptops, my lip balm, even the rocks we pick up along the way – are always in the same place. But it’s a familiarity that disorients.

We’re nomadic. We live in state parks, national parks, and corps of engineer parks, where the rule is you can only stay 14 days at a time. This works well for us. We fall somewhere between perpetual wanderlust and a nostalgic love of place. So, our house, our camper, is our only constant. But in the mornings, when the shades are down, knowing that I’m home doesn’t mean knowing where I am.

Some mornings I like to play a little mental game, where I close my eyes and try to remember the events of the previous day. This morning, I think back to where I hiked or where I fed the birds or the path I took to the bathroom. But it’s not the events, exactly, that help me remember where I am, it’s the background against which these events played out. When I remember my hike, I can see the rocky, snow-covered hillside that made each step a protracted, prayerful plunge. I see the copse of junipers and pines where the juncos cracked sunflower seeds from their shells. I retrace my steps to the toilet and see again the mountains that surround this park and which gaze at themselves in the silent lake at the bottom of the hill. All it takes is a few conjured details for the whole place to materialize. It’s the background that orients me.

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Recently, our background was the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that sit low around Navajo Lake and climb higher and more jagged as they recede northward toward Colorado. For two weeks, a rectangular slice of that background was framed by the window across from my bunk, and it became the signature view that oriented me to that park every morning. The exact view is of a small domed peak with mesas that stretch out from both sides and reach around like arms hugging the narrowed lake. I’ve tried to figure out if that little dome has a name, but I haven’t any luck and there’s nobody around to ask. So, it’s become “the dome” to me.

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I’ve taken 60 pictures of the dome. It’s a beautiful scene, so it shouldn’t seem odd necessarily. But I’m more of a up-close-and-personal, beauty-in-the-details photographer and I haven’t historically leaned toward that kind of series. So, I’ve been looking at these photos and wondering why this background inspired an obsession.

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Two years ago, I was waking up in the same place every day. I knew what to expect when I looked out my window. We lived in an area of Okinawa that housed half the island’s population on a quarter of its land. They have become very skilled at developing every square inch. My background there consisted entirely of apartment buildings.

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I can still see the two buildings that hogged the view from my living room window. They were situated perpendicular to each other, with bright orange and red painted details masking the basic concrete blandness of the island’s architectural style. The narrow road, too small to accommodate two American-sized cars side by side, ran like a tunnel between my building and those two across the way and turned abruptly at the corner to run out of sight toward the main road. The building that faced me was made of five stories, each with two large windows that were separated by a thick concrete wall and mostly hidden by balconies that hung like heavy, concrete tubs in front of them. Sometimes the curtains would be opened, allowing voyeuristic insight into how skillfully people can pack themselves among their things in impossibly tiny spaces. Different balconies sheltered drying clothes at different times, sometimes wetsuits, sometimes comforters. It might be cloudy or sunny or raining, with different cars or different people moving in various directions. Drive-thru cashiers confirming orders in sing-song Japanese. The scream and boom of military jets practicing maneuvers some weekday mornings.

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There’s supposed to be a certain amount of comfort in constancy. A general sense of coming home to the coziness of familiarity after being out in the world where chaos and uncertainty reign. But the implacable permanence of those two apartment buildings drove me insane. And the changing details that created atmosphere only made it worse. For the first time I seriously considered the meaning of background. Up to that point, I would rattle off my background with details of my hometown, my education, and my résumé. But as I my mental health slowly drowned in a sea of concrete and human din, I recognized that the background against which you live your life is as important as the history that embodies it.

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On his 75th birthday, my dad gave an impromptu speech about the importance of family. “Today I have my wish,” he said, “All I’ve ever wanted is for all of my family to be here around me.” He kept nodding his head with his pursed lips and squinted eyes and wagging finger in that way normally reserved for serious pontification after a few beers. “I don’t have many years left on this Earth,” he continued, “And I’ve lived long enough to know that family is your only true constant. Family is the compass that leads you home.”

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My dad’s own nuclear family had been a mystery to us. From what we were able to piece together from his vague reminiscences, it had practically dissolved when he was 15 years old. He was left to fend for himself, doing homework between odd jobs that kept him out late into the night. Alone and barely eking by. Resisting the temptation to give up and have an easier life in the care and camaraderie of inner-city gangs. I imagine he spent a lot of time convincing himself of the virtue of staying true to the hope of salvation through a real family of his own. And then he spent the next sixty years creating that perfect family and feeling vindicated.

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This was the philosophy of background I grew up with. That family should serve as both the background that defines your life and the scenery that gives it atmosphere. We lived in the same house for twenty years. And to probably an unhealthy degree, my immediately family dominated my view. I went to and from school with no extracurriculars. I worked and handed my pay checks over to my parents. I sacrificed friendship and frivolity to stay home and eat dinner, play games, watch movies. I was like a prisoner, living in a cell and playing in the same little fenced in patch of yard during my one hour a day. But I wasn’t unhappy. It was right. I made it work because it was for family.

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Nine months after his birthday speech, my dad wasn’t talking to me. According to what he would say on the recording my sister-in-law secretly made, he wasn’t sure he would ever want to again. He blamed me for what had happened. “You know how she is,” he told my brother afterwards, “She’s always been stubborn. She used to do this to her mother.” His behavior was incomprehensible and surreal. Lying and denying and excusing the inexcusable actions of the woman that had torn us apart. It was a shocking betrayal of family. I felt dazed and shredded by anger and hurt. And I kept hearing my dad as he sarcastically thanked me for ruining his life and couldn’t hold back unwarranted waves of self-doubt and guilt.

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We cut the trip short and spent the next three days getting back home, the return extended by delayed flights, unexpected long drives, and unplanned hotel stays. I felt like a refugee fleeing a disaster. I kept replaying the event and talking about it constantly despite the desire to ignore it. At that time, our home was on the banks of a large lake in the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Each afternoon, we walked down to the water’s edge and listened to it whistle as it flowed under the frozen surface and watched minnows dart in and out of the air pockets that surrounded half-submerged rocks. The azure of the lake matched that of the sky and was enhanced by the strip of rocky brown mountains that divided them. The days were crisp and golden from the sun. It was a beautiful sight, but it only made me sad.

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The mountains and the lake dwarfed us. All the pettiness and bitterness of that visit seemed ridiculous and insignificant in their presence. Grandeur and immensity make the complications of life seem small. Only the thrill of being alive and standing there in that moment seem worthy of concern. I had the thought that perhaps the anger that my dad and his wife held so tightly came from never standing in a spot like that, never thinking the thoughts that standing there inspired. And I felt lucky to have those lessons every day. But it was melancholic recognition. Right at the moment when joy would normally sweep through me, I would think about how miserable my dad must be and of the miserable state of our family. It was like a conditioned response, see beauty feel pain. Suddenly my background was a disorienting force. And not once in the entire two weeks that we lived there did I take a single picture of it.

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I wondered about Monet, content in his little corner of nature, and also tormented by his own background. But tormented by the difficulty in capturing it and not by its ability to befuddle. I believe Monet probably felt quite oriented among his waterlilies and the grain stacks that made his background static. But it’s interesting to me that he believed landscapes had no value without atmosphere, and that they are only animated by the interest that changes of atmosphere give them. When most people see his paintings of those waterlilies and grain stacks, they see the changes. They see the seeds of abstraction in the way light and time of day break them down into geometric shapes and make them come to life.

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I think about this when I look back on my 60 pictures of the little dome. The rocky details that make up its shape shine in the bright sunlight. Winter fog diffuses its edges and blends it into the ambient gray. Storm clouds suffuse it with an ominous mood and the pink clouds of twilight feature it against a romantic glow. Highlights single it out, while shadows and snow try to obscure. But all the while, there it stands. At no point do I look at a single picture and think, “the atmosphere has rendered this little dome almost unrecognizable.” Instead, despite all the moments when I tried to catch it changing, it stayed there for me, ultimately unchanged. To me, it’s the constancy, not the changes, that breathes life into that little dome. It is alive and it exists alongside its atmosphere, not because of it. And I find comfort in that.

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© 2019 Lindsay Sears @ soanuthatch.com All Rights Reserved

 

4 thoughts on “Background

Add yours

    1. Thank you for this seasonal tour! What a great way to celebrate a single view! I love seeing the various forms of life that enjoy that space! So lovely! Thank you, again, for taking the time to read and for leaving such an apropos comment!

      1. Thank you, Lindsay. This is a city garden but the links at the and of the post lead to a field in Tuscany with poppies, and to the lake, maybe you’d like those more because they are wilder. 🙂

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