Remember how, in the original post about my 365 project, I mentioned that I was now very, very, very happy? This is the moment that started all that. Or close enough. This is my contract for a tenure-track job at Georgia Southern University. I signed on this line and everything changed. And thank God. And for the better. No: best.
I chose this photograph for January because it’s symbolic, for me, of how much I loved my students at Georgetown College. In the fall of 2010, I taught my second Creative Nonfiction Workshop at Georgetown. We wrote a collaborative lyric essay as a class, and, as a gift, I hand-bound small chapbooks of that essay for every student. It’s still one of my prized possessions: a beautiful example of what can happen when a class is willing to take risks together.
Picture it: Scott County, Kentucky, November of 2009. Specifically, Cincinnati/Georgetown/Lexington Road. I’m in the passenger seat of my Toyota Matrix, helping my father navigate the car to my favorite sandwich shop in Lexington. I’m studying the street signs, trying to make sure I don’t once more miss the turn I always miss, and then I realize that my confusion isn’t solely due to my complete and utter lack of navigational skills but due to the fact that, well, I couldn’t see the street signs.
In fact, I couldn’t see much of anything. When we made it to the sandwich shop, finally, I took my contacts out and put them back in again. I still couldn’t see. I ordered a vegetarian sandwich, which I also couldn’t see, though I could taste it was delicious. Then a fellow lunch patron brought out a set of bongos and started playing and reciting his own poetry, which I also couldn’t see, though I knew it was hilarious. We left when my mother saw him pull out his guitar.
And so began one of the many harrowing periods of physical illness I’ve been through in the past few years. I’d been taking a medication for sciatica which, I later learned from my doctor, had some terrible (read: life-threatening) side-effects — I mean, if they made a commercial for this stuff, it’d be thirty minutes long — especially if one stopped taking it too quickly — as I, I also later learned from my doctor, had apparently been instructed to do. Besides an inability to see, the side-effects also included, among many other things, an inability to remember — something which, for someone who had always depended upon a very-close-to-photographic memory, was absolutely terrifying.
But that day also began my fight to fight against the problems I was facing. I was determined to find some way to remember, to function through the illness, and thus began keeping notes and tabs and sketches and images to memorialize not just important events but every day. I noticed something as I did, which was that elevating everyday events to this degree made me pay more attention to them. I was, in one sense, working to survive in the short-term, but I was, in another sense, learning how to love the simplest moments of my life in the long-term.
At the end of December, my dear friend K. introduced me to the 365 Project. It’s a simple idea — take a photo for every 365 days of your life in a year — but, in its execution, it was life-changing. I noticed I was focusing more on the small, simple, but gorgeous details of the day-to-day, and learning to love them more and more. And through this appreciation, I found that the meaning of such moments shifted, that a terrible day could be saved in the seconds it took for the shutter to shut, capturing even the smallest of the day’s beauties: a reflection in the window, a threaded needle, a cat’s whiskers curling upwards in its sleep.
And this ended up being a lifesaver in its own right, as I had no idea where my own life would lead me in 2010 — especially in the summer, when, after a routine operation, a surgical accident left me hospitalized for a long while and very, very, very lucky to still be alive. Taking photographs saved me during my stay in the hospital, when I had to stay perfectly still, pumped through with antibiotics and blood thinners, forbidden from eating or drinking anything while the doctors kept my digestive system completely shut down. I was able to focus on something besides my (I admit, really disgustingly nastily malfunctioning) body. I was also able to find the humor in things, like, for instance, this:
Yes. That, my friend, is gravy. It is also what the nurse (accidentally) gave me for my first meal after having my entire digestive system shut down for five days. It’s a small moment, but it made me laugh — albeit painfully — and I’m glad to have the image so that when I remember that day, I remember that. Not the tube down my nose (seriously, I meant it when I said disgustingly nasty) or the blood thinners and the giant bruises they gave me or the inhumanly strong antibiotics needed to keep me out of septic shock or the fact that said antibiotics backed up in my IV, resulting in a massive infection — that one moment, that one laugh. And the most important lesson of all: sometimes, gravy all by itself is just delicious.
Without even thinking about it, I set up a collection on my Flickr account for a 365 project for 2011. Maybe this seemed automatic for me because, really, the project is about constructing narratives, which is, pretty much, the project of my life. When I look at the photographs from this year, that’s what I’m looking at: a narrative, a story of change, a story of my journey from being, well, very, very, very unhappy to very, very, very happy.
In honor of this, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs about my 365 Project. There are 12 Days of Christmas; conveniently, there are also 12 months in a year. Every day, I’m going to focus on one photo from the month and talk about it. Of course, being me, I’m two days late on the twelve days of Christmas thing, so I’m going to post two entries tonight. Please humor me on this trip down Memory Lane — there may, at least, be cats on the way.