(short, not sweet, always a photo)
Last weekend was the last weekend of the West Austin Studio Tour. I happen to live in a neighborhood with lots of artists, and it happened to be cool and overcast, so I walked to some of the places in my neighborhood.
Down Mary Street with all its different kinds of houses.
Along South First St with all its decorated telephone poles (when I first moved here I mistook this mysterious artist's--or artists'--work for the kinds of altars or descansos created for people killed on the road) and that mural everyone poses for.
Up Annie St. with an outstanding example of the things people in Austin do to their yards and some joyful noise being made at St. Annie's AME.
I ended the day by purchasing some cards made from photographs taken by my friend Gia (who I met via Instagram because we travel many of the same highways in New Mexico and Northern California, as well as Austin). Big Medium publishes a beautiful catalog with all the participating artists' statements and a sample of their work and sponsors studio tours for both the East and West sides of Austin, twice a year. But the studio that is Austin its quirky self is open 365 days a year.
I like to read and write. I spend a lot of time inside my head often in the company of writers who spend a lot of time inside their heads, too.
And so some days I have to get out of my head as the saying goes. These days I find it harder and harder.
Inside my head is the chaos of the current presidency and also the ongoing difficulty my son with Type 1 diabetes (who turned twenty-six a few days before the Chaos was inaugurated and the dismantling of Obamacare began) has had with health insurance. The short version is that we decided to, at enormous cost, use COBRA so he could continue using the good insurance I have as a result of teaching at UC Berkeley for about half my life. Somewhere in the harrowing process of dealing with three different institutions--UC, CoNexis and Blue Cross--his Social Security number was recorded incorrectly. Since February: phone calls, the frustration of paying for coverage doctors can't confirm, paying for insulin and hoping the reimbursement will get processed , etc.
I have numerous ways to get outside of my head. I take photographs. I go to the gym. Sometimes I go to the gym and take photographs. My gym is at the Townlake YMCA in Austin. Right behind it, unbeknownst to me until yesterday (I've only lived here for a little over a year) is the Austin train station.
That it was nearby was obvious as I've spent a lot of time waiting for the train to pass when I drive to the gym and watching it curl around the tracks as it crosses the Colorado River not far from the Y. In any case, yesterday, soaking in sweat from and hour of Zumba, I decided to walk up the 32 steps that lead from the parking lot to what I thought was just an empty lot. But at the top of the path, I saw a pile of discarded railroad tracks and sat there to watch the train approach the station.
Then I walked down to the station and discovered an amazing row of abandoned buildings right across from it. Austin is known for the color orange (UT Hook'em Horns) both in its architecture and the flowering plants throughout the city. But it was the blue that caught my eye in this row of buildings.
So I lingered. And took pictures. And thought about some train trips I'd like to take. When I got back to the Y parking lot, I saw a small flock of bright green parrots bathing in a puddle left by the recent rain. I didn't take out my camera. Sometimes it's best just to focus on what is in front of me rather than frame it with a lens. A nearby car pulled out and the parrots flew off in a sparkle of green, leaving droplets of water glinting in the sunshine as they went.
When I got home, I learned that my son had resolved (we hope) the insurance problem. No headbanging for at least another 24 hours. Every day is a countdown. But every day is a also new day.
I resisted. I resisted consuming more than fifteen minutes of news.
What I did consume made me look forward to my impending mammogram.
After the mammogram, I decided to explore South Austin, a part of town I'm not very familiar with.
I didn't really think there would be armadillos, but I thought I'd take a look anyway. None to be found. But it was the looking--camera in hand--that was important.
And then down the road a piece I found the Rio Grande Tortillaria. The tortillas are wonderful and the salsa de arbol has a rich red flavor that approaches the flavor of New Mexico red chile.
As for the dread: it won't go away until 45 and his minions do. In the meantime, I enjoy fresh tortillas, try not to overdose on news and continue my search for armadillos.
(originally written as a #cnfgram Creative Nonfiction's call for #tinytruths with photographs)
Taxidermy: the word painted in letters that drip like blood down a jagged board nailed to a dying pecan tree. This image appears in more than one piece of fiction I've written. But it isn't until I see this neat sign, this bright Lone Star trailer off I-10 in Texas, across the road from Hruska's--known for its kolaches--that I write what I know about the taxidermist's daughter.
Five days a week the school bus that stopped in front of my family's farm outside Roswell, New Mexico, also stopped at that pecan tree for the taxidermist's children. Nipple. Bone. Breath. Everything showed through the fabric of the sisters' worn out dresses, garments that resembled those worn by girls on Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Myra, the youngest girl, was a year ahead of me in school, her little brother the same age as mine. When the bus driver opened the door for them, we cleared a seat so the sisters could sit together, not because they requested this, but so they would not sit with us. The two older girls were quiet, but Myra was loud and boisterous. She asked to copy homework. No one replied. She cracked her gum and offered pieces to us from her grimy pocket. No one accepted. Shunned even by her sisters, Myra forced us to pay attention to her if only with our silence. The boy, his face caked with snot, always found a place with other boys, often with my brother, Johnny. They weren't close friends, but Johnny didn't ignore the boy's existence.
After about a year, Myra and her family disappeared. Migrant workers were common in our farming community. We were accustomed to transient classmates. The bus no longer stopped at the pecan tree; the sign faded. When I was in college, my mother served on a jury down the hall from where Myra was being tried for the murder of her father and brother. Details leaked. The two had held her hostage in a trailer outside town, raping and torturing her until she got her hands on a gun and filled their bodies with bullets. Myra was found innocent. Self-defense. Her only defense. I put down my kolache and pick up my iPad. Haunted by Myra for decades, I attempt to acknowledge her presence.
Like a lot of people, I felt muted by the 2016 election of a most unqualified, undignified, unenlightened, unintelligent man to serve as the President of the United States. For a while I remained quiet. Full of despair. As I began to shed the despair, I found a voice, mostly in agreement with journalists and others writing about the election. I’d add a few words to a Facebook post of an article or a reTweet.
But I could not write anything of my own. Not a short story, not an essay, not even a journal entry. I could access the minds and imaginations of others, but not my own.
So I turned to photography as I often do when words flee.
A few months before the election, I had begun a self-paced online photography course. So I returned to the syllabus, thankful for direction, some guidelines. A map. One of the course readings suggested finding a theme for taking photos.
I know myself well enough to know that I don’t work that way. Not in my writing (I write; figure it out; rewrite), and not in photography (I shoot and shoot and shoot and hope something emerges). Nonetheless, the shots are my eye, my frame. So there is naturally a kind of theme. Sometimes I can name it.
With the help of a friend who made the comment, “Fire and water,” about the red leaf below, I was able to articulate what I had been seeing in recent photos.
Things that remain beautiful though dead in the water.