“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” – Colette
Depth of Field: the area or ‘zone’ of a photograph, from front to back, which is in focus.
“I want to run away,” I told my oldest and dearest friend the other day. Up went her eyebrows, as I am not a person who thinks much about running. I’m way too cautious and obsessed with planning to take off without notice. But now I was ready to jump out of my sorry skin. She said, “What do you think you are running from?” At the end of our conversation the answer came to me.
For over two years I have been obsessed by loss and death. I watched death slowly overtake my mother. I saw her struggle for every breath, fighting for the energy to make her once athletic legs stand and carry her to the bathroom ten feet away. I smelled death and decay in the stale air of the sickroom, where it was just too difficult to shower and dress in fresh clothes every day.
I see death in the sagging facial muscles, palsied tremors and slow shuffle gait of my father, stricken by Parkinson’s. I see his meticulous focus and laser wit fading in favor of a desperate, silent struggle to accomplish the simplest tasks of daily living. I have watched him fight to maintain his dignity while grudgingly accepting assistance with the most private human needs.
When I came home from these visits, this narrow death-focused lens of seeing the world stuck with me. I saw my husband giving in to entropy, his handsome face disappearing beneath jowls of neglect. I cringed at my own reflection in the mirror, seeing only the wrinkles, sags and sun spots. My lens on the world presented a slippery downhill slope, fraught with near and certain infirmity. My shoulders ached from the weight of potential caregiver for life. Game over.
With this dark lens covering my eyes, I morphed into something akin to a porcupine. When porcupines are threatened, they turn their back, raise their quills and lash out at the threat with their tail. Approach the porcupine and prepare to get stuck. They are nocturnal and solitary creatures. Like the porcupine, I slept very little and preferred to be alone, as I was prone to sharing unsolicited cynical, pessimistic views with my loved ones on the topic of the moment. They bore this with great patience and forced smiles, but it was clear I wouldn’t be missed if I left the room.
I was in a cold, dark and lonely place, by my own volition. Those sharp quills were hurting everyone I loved. I was NOT who I wanted to be. I was choosing a perspective, a way of seeing, that was not healthy. I have never understood or given much credence to the state of depression, but I think I might have been in it.
During this time I took up photography. It has provided great solace to my soul, but in some ways it has also been a form of running away. My photowalks were solitary, and I gravitated toward macro photography, where the camera’s focus is close and tight on a singular item and its detailed components. The depth of field is shallow, and the rest of the environment – the background – is deliberately blurred. It’s a search to find and capture perfection in nature – the focus is on the tree (or the leaf) and NOT the forest. As I searched for the one perfect flower or seashell, I deliberately bypassed the grandeur of the mountains or the vastness and power of the ocean.
But lately during my walks, I have been driven by some voice to pull my focus back – to increase the depth of field and consider the bigger picture. I’ve been working to see the enduring architectural forms and lines that support an entire structure; to discover the sweeping patterns of ground and foliage that underpin the mountain vista. It’s hard, and I’m not very good at it. My eye still goes to the small things, critically judging them to see if they are worthy. Focused on the small, I miss the beauty and eternal strength of the whole.
That same inner voice (I think its name is Sanity) – the one whispering to increase depth of field in my camera’s focus – spoke to me again, and this time the advice was about my life and relationships, not my photos. “You are seeing only decay and imperfection in these too-small-views. But there is more, so much more. Step back and see the richness in the whole of your life. Put yourself in the picture and capture it, LIVE IT now. Don’t run from it, ENTER it. There is no other choice.”
Tentatively, I am pulling in my porcupine quills and making a conscious effort to broaden my focus and see the whole of this wonderful life. Even though I really want a new macro lens for my camera, perhaps my next purchase should be some wide-angle glass. I’m training myself to see differently. It’s easier on some days than others, but the view – and the welcome from my family – are entirely worth the effort.