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04 August 2006

Be the camera

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” – Harper Lee

Zinnias_in_seattle_3In the truest sense of the word, the universe provides what we need when we need it. Or perhaps we only can hear the messages we need when we need them and not at other times, like the time in high school when I was selected to be an AFS exchange student to a country I had never heard of, Sri Lanka, and then suddenly heard that extraordinary name everywhere?

Today after deciding to begin a running program (and by “running,” I mean “walking,” or sometimes “meandering,” and by “program,” I mean “sumpin-sumpin”), I got an email from a 37days reader about a recent post in which I stalk inquire about Billy “My Man” Collins. Turns out, she’s an Olympian, a runner. I've always wanted to run a marathon; I’ll get some inspiration from her blog, I’m sure.

And in the same “isn’t that weird that it would happen so close together like that” kind of moment, this tale unfolded after my recent post on Buddhist Economics:

A small child in my household, the naming of whom might prove traumatic and so we will simply identify her as being 38" tall, months ago violently threw dropped my digital camera on the floor. It took some egregious amount of time to find the warranty and drop it off at Best Buy for fixin.’

Canon_ixus60_backThe part they needed to fix it was backordered until April of 2050, so Best Buy nicely sent me a new camera without my even asking. I hate to bite a gift horse or whatever that saying is, but I really didn’t like the one they sent, so asked pretty please if they could send me a Canon Digital Elph PowerShot SD600 instead, even though it was much more expensive.

Hey, I’ve decided that nothing ever comes of not putting stuff out there in the universe, y’know? The worst they could say—and the most likely reply—was “no.” They might even go so far as to say, “hell, no, are you insane?” It was a chance I could live with.

They said “yes.”

I’m here to tell you that this is a happening little camera. I love everything about it—the shutter delay that plagued me with my old camera is gone, it is fast and small enough to fit into a pocket, the screen is lovely—it’s a fine piece of equipment. I’m very, very happy, I thought to myself.

I took it on a recent trip and snapped over 366 photographs and a few feature length documentaries on my 1 gigabyte memory card; I couldn’t wait to get home and show John the digital trails of my journey.

As I waited for my luggage in NYC near the end of my trip, I saw an elderly man wearing a fabulous anti-racism t-shirt and reached into my bag for my camera. It wasn’t there. It was a new bag, so I was sure it was in a new pocket. But as I clawed through the effluvia of my trip—ticket stubs, index cards, fountain pens, Altoids, business cards, my search became more frantic as I realized in one shocking moment that I had left my new, beautiful, wonderful camera on the plane. I felt my throat fill up; I was heartsick. I ran back upstairs and saw one of the flight attendants walking through the terminal. “What gate were we at?!?” I screamed like a madwoman at her, startling her. “What gate? What gate?” She had no idea who I was. She had never seen me before. I was one of hundreds of passengers she would serve Diet Coke to that day.

“Um, Gate 22?” she answered.

But I was beyond security; there was no going back. I ran to the Delta counter. The man just shook his head without looking up: “Look, lady, by the time the cleaning crew comes on board, your camera is long gone,” he said, returning to his Very Important Paperwork, dismissing me in an instant. There was no plug-in for this kind of loss in his head—it didn’t matter to him; I was one of many problems, lost items, complaints that day. I slumped, my head falling down, a tear falling to the floor, then another. It wasn’t the camera, although it was a beautiful, fantastical, amazing instrument. It was the pictures.

Img_0202I had talked legions of important people into making funny faces into the camera so I could send them to cheer my friend and co-teacher, Kichom, in Japan, who couldn’t come to the Institute this year. Our facial expressions were designed to reflect our shock, horror, and dismay at his absence. I had documented the travels of my gorgeous and rugged Filson luggage that John traded antique maps for at Andy and Lucy’s shop (bartering is so fantastic—let’s all do more of it, okay?). I had photographed all the food that David and Lora forced me to eat at their house in Img_0200_2Seattle. I had captured the images of the people in the class I taught, the wonderful French man who makes cheese in Seattle and sells it at the Farmer's Market, the young toddler in swimming goggles watching musicians at the Farmer's Market, and amazing zinnias. All gone. All gone. All gone.

In that moment, hot tears in my eyes, slumped over the Delta counter, I realized that the post about “Buddhist Economics,” had been about the elimination of craving: "While the materialist is Img_0222mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation...It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation, but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things, but the craving for them."

The universe gives us lessons, doesn’t it? Here was mine. I needed to give up my craving for that camera and those images, didn’t I?

When John and I were first together as a couple, we went to Santa Fe. I realized as I looked at jewelry during that trip that I had never bought myself any jewelry as an adult: in fact, I didn’t wear any jewelry or adornment of any kind. For many reasons, I needed to mark this new era in my life and did so with a remarkable silver ring that I wear everyday, a ring with sugilite and turquoise and lapis, a gorgeous architecture of power, independence, trueness. It was a symbol far more than it was a ring.

Ring_powerYears ago, I gave a speech in D.C. where we then lived. When I got home, I looked down at my right hand and realized in horror that the central stone in that ring—a beautiful, deep purple sugilite—was gone. Numb with sick, I called the hotel to ask if anyone had found it; of course, they hadn’t. I knew they wouldn’t. It was one of a thousand lost things, wasn’t it?, none of which meant anything to them, but everything to me. I had a moment’s horror, that heart kind—the sinking pit feeling, the rising heat, the bile, the hot face, the stinging tears. And then, a moment later as I looked down at my hand, now a gaping hole where that lovely stone once rested, I realized with a quiet peace that I had internalized the ring, that the meaning of it was now in me, not out there on my finger, and that I was peaceful with not having, that “having had” was enough, that I felt strong on my own now, the talisman having served its purpose until I could be myself strong.

I wrapped the ring in tissue and put it away. Very soon even the pentimento of its structure had disappeared from my finger. A few years later when the opportunity arose for a trip to Santa Fe, I slipped it into my luggage—perhaps that little shop would still be there: it was. As I entered, I told the salesclerk about getting the ring there many years earlier, about losing the stone, about what it meant to me. I unwrapped it and held it in front of her like an offering. I thought I heard a small gasp. “Wait here,” she said quietly. “Wait right here. I’ll be right back.”

She was back in an instant, trailed by a beautiful man with a gray ponytail and a smile like people smile in Santa Fe, that happy, fulfilled, I’m living my dream in an amazing place and I’m an artist kind of smile. I held out the ring to him and that happy smile burst into sunshine. “Oh, my” he said. “Oh, my. I haven’t seen this ring in years and years. It’s like seeing an old friend again.” He sat down slowly.

“He made this ring,” the shop clerk explained as he held the ring and turned it in his hands, touching it quietly and smiling. “He made it and it was the only one like it that he made. I recognized it immediately when you unwrapped it and it just so happened that he was in the shop today. I knew he would be thrilled to see it again.”

Mr. Ring Maker and I talked for quite some time in that small, crowded shop, me telling him the story of how I came to love and own the ring, what it meant to me then and what it means to me now. He held it lovingly and promised to shine it and replace the sugilite for me, then ship it home to me. I wear it everyday now, too, not because I need it for strength, but because I once did.

Julio Lopez at the Delta ticket counter in New York’s JFK airport just couldn’t bear what he saw—a gray-haired, tired, slightly rumpled woman who had been traveling for 12 days and was quietly crying at the Delta counter as if she couldn’t believe what she had done, having been summarily dismissed by his coworker. “Let me run to Gate 22,” he said to me. “I’ll do my best.”

He was gone a long time.

I gave up hope. I knew I would leave without it. And I also realized that it was okay, that the images were really inside me, that I could be okay with the loss. I made my peace with it, standing there near Mr. Dismissive Man.

The irony of the moment wasn’t lost of me—do we write about and teach about what we most need to learn?

Just then, Mr. Julio Lopez came bounding toward me. Suddenly, from quite a distance, he held up a small red camera bag in his hand, triumphant at finding it on board that plane!

[If you fly through JFK and see Julio Lopez at the Delta counter, give him a hug for me. My only regret in the excitement and relief of the moment is that I didn’t take his picture.]

Zinnias_in_seattle_1Not having and then having again—I’ve roads to go down yet in my extraction from craving, but it was a good lesson, a message, a sign that I could do it. Perhaps my message this week from Joan Nesbit Mabe, the runner, was also a sign that I could do it. In fact, I’ve decided to train (with my daughter, Emma) to run a half-marathon in April because of my correspondence with Joan about Billy Collins. Funny how the world works when we listen to it. [If you are near Greensboro, NC next April, I hope you'll come cheer me on--lord knows I'll need it.]

Aren’t these zinnias from the Seattle Farmer’s Market amazing? From a small, wonderful, fast, amazing, lost and now found new camera, the one inside me.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

WhirlsListen to the messages you’re being given. The universe is speaking to us—what is it saying? Why aren’t we listening?

Be the camera. Sometimes we need external symbols of worth, strength, happiness—the ring, the photos—what is it for you, I wonder? Hold them tight, those symbols, and be prepared to let them fly away, too. Don’t rely on them too, too much. Become them, internalize them, live them.  Even give them away. They will have more power that way.


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Great piece. I've been in your shoes these kinds of situations so many times.

I had a sense throughout your story that your camera would be recovered and felt a great sense of relief when indeed it was.

Material things in themselves don't hold value other than their monetary price, but when their function has the ability to hold memories and experiences then their loss becomes a personal one.

When I moved to the US last year and lived without my "things" for six months while they were in transit I felt kind of lost, but also strangely light at the same time. I remember thinking of the Katrina victims who had lost all of their physical possessions for good and a part of me couldn't help but feel that this is an amazing chance to start from the beginning, like a newborn but with the knowledge of an adult. Then our shipment arrived and a huge wave of relief overcame me ... aaah, MY things, MY stuff, MY history, MY self.

Non-attachment is a noble ambition but certainly not an easy one.

Thank you for 'foreshadowing' with those photos, Patti!

Tana - thanks for your note! (And congratulations on having your blog chosen as a Typepad Featured Blog - it is a wonderful site.) [] Congrats!

Kerstin - Thanks for your note - and for your insights and story...

I remember once I was on a trip with a very heavy suitcase and halfway through the trip, I had an almost overwhelming urge to just leave it on the baggage carousel at the airport. I even walked away, and then went back. Why?

A fresh start is a very attractive proposition - but, I believe, only when we choose it, and not--like the people who lost everything in Katrina--when it is forced on us, perhaps?

Sometimes I think what the world needs is a fresh start. Imagine if we could wake up tomorrow and start over--what would we change? Would we reinvent war in the Middle East? Would we reinvent money and class structures and privilege--or not?

Thanks for your thought-provoking note.

Dan - so you caught that, eh? ;-) Leave it to a photographer to pick up on that! Your photos - - are so beautiful!

Beautifully said.

To paraphrase Buddha: Attachment--especially to stuff--causes a whole world of suffering.

Yep, but it was nice to know the story was going to have a happy ending!

...and thank you!

As I've heard it said, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Life does seem to teach us lessons when we least expect it. I'm glad your camera was recovered and your sugilite stone is being replaced.
We certainly need more Julio Lopez's in the world and less of the Mr. Dismissives!

Stay safe and strong during your half marathon training!

I think the Universe is speaking through YOU right now. Honestly, I JUST finished writing about my complicated relationship to STUFF and how I feel like I move about in an atmosphere of perpetual Lack.

And then RIGHT AFTER (seriously!) I read your essay. I still need to process all of this stuff, but thanks to you I have a place to begin pondering.

What a wonderful story (especially about the ring--wow!)...and I loved that you got your camera back. Hurray!

I don't feel like I say "thank you" enough to you for your "thank you, and thank you, and thank you again!"

Dear Patti,

I was really sick Saturday and Sunday. The kind of sick where if someone said I could choose death, I might have said yes. During this time I read the words of the Buddha about attachment being the cause of all suffering. I pondered on how attached I was to my body, and I tried to transcend the suffering by reminding myself that even my body was an attachment. For just an instant I became detached from my sickness. Like the earlier writer who accepted the gift of simplicity while she awaited the shipping of her things, yet was overjoyed when her stuff finally arrived, I accepted the sickness (albeit fleetingly), but was overjoyed when wellness returned. It is a lesson to me to practice, practice, and practice letting go of attachments.


Another gem of writing, even though I had a voice in back telling me you found the camera (as you were showing some of pictures you mentioned, yes, but they could have been from another time) I continued on entranced as usual.

Good luck with your new goal!

as one who suffered (past tense now thanks to new meds) extreme, debilitating asthma for 35 years or so...I love breathing and learned not to take one breath for granted...

thanks for encouragement to continue listening to the messages...
and those gorgeous pics...

Also loved the foreshadowing. And what a lovely, lovely thing to do for your friend, to take pictures of people making silly faces. I just love the idea!

Analisa - thank you so much for taking the time to write - it was a fantastically fun project, those faces!

Grace, T - your note reminds me of how much we take for granted - thanks for writing!

Steve - thanks, as always, for the encouragement!

Joy - thanks so much for the words from Buddha...

Joy K - i so appreciate your note and words of support and encouragement!

Sue - I'm so sorry you were so sick - I hope you are continuing to improve. Your note gave me such insight - thank you. You've really put all this into a new, important perspective for me - thank you.

Mardougrrl - you're welcomed - and thank you for your ongoing support and encouragement! I'm just glad that you're getting the messages you need to get at the time when you need them. I'm sure that most of that equation isn't 37days, but your own understanding and readiness for the message to emerge.

Lovely stories and message. Internalize and let go. You need both halves indeed. How wonderful to meet with the ring maker. Glad you Mr. Lopez went the extra mile. :)


I keep forgetting to tell you about it...
After I read your story, I went to consignment store in Westport, CT last week and I saw a pin, which was most likely done by the same artist, and looks like part of a set with your ring, same design, exactly the same combination of stones...One stone is missing though ...Yup, sugilite:-)

Thanks so your much for your stories and inspiration!


P.S. I do think you should become redhead again. you looked soooo gorgeous!

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