It’s a cold, sleety afternoon here on the banks of the Ohio River and as I prepared to share the next image in the THREE QUARTERS series of conceptual photos I’m developing as part of the #VirtualSPAR residency, it struck me that there’s another project I want to be part of that I’d been neglecting.
That project is a worldwide letter to Loneliness. Dear Loneliness is an EX/POST Magazine production with the goal to write the longest letter in the world to fight loneliness. They are planning to break the Guinness world record letter length of 290 meters—three football fields’ or almost 1,000 sheets of A4 paper.
Who doesn’t have a thing or two to say to loneliness? As I considered today’s image, “Watching the Sun Rise in Tartu”, I realized I was ready to write a little note to loneliness too.
The image and the poem I wrote to loneliness are bound together with a slim but sure thread. Here is the poem:
You are the pen in the right hand of my missing twin
and you are my mother’s voice explaining
“From the time you were born,
you never liked to be touched”
even as she dodged my clumsy hugs.
You were always every eye-rolling schoolmate
sniggering at my oddness and later you were
the first boy who pity-danced with me,
looking down from his great height sighing
“You’re leading, you know” before I fled the floor.
Loneliness, how quickly you transformed into
red wine at all hours, lovers who never introduced me
to their families, the churn of 90 hour work weeks burdened
with the nagging certainty I would never be enough.
You were so adaptable, such a natural chameleon
anything and anyone could wear your face, Loneliness.
And it was your face I saw that day ten years ago when
I looked in the mirror and realized you were killing me.
I stared into your tired eyes and told you it was time
we ended it, I wasn’t scared to be alone and, after you left,
I discovered what a gift you’d given me, how at home
I was in silence and stillness, how peaceful. Suddenly
the towering companion, the sweetheart of my earliest days—
imagination—pulled eagerly at my hand and there we were,
striding unencumbered through nature, just us two—
the great bear of imagination and the lonely awkward child
now come into her own. We did not forget you, Loneliness,
even though you were gone. We remembered you when
the last golden leaf spun down from the birch, we heard
echoes of your voice as sandhill cranes trilled south,
we traced your bones by the side of the road, in your honor
we scattered seeds and seasons later were surprised by flowers.
Each day we rise now—imagination and I—to see the sunrise
and each morning we renew our vow to spin bright creation
from the boundless dark well you blessed us with, dear Loneliness.
I am often surprised by how one creative process feeds others. I am both a writer and a visual artist and, as I was developing as a photographer, I used to share a photo a day to Facebook. When I first started sharing my photos, I often chose a bit of poem or text–generally by another author–that I felt resonated with the photo. As the years went by, I began to use the photographs I created as writing prompts. The resulting essays and poems often, in turn, led to the photographs’ titles. The two works became inextricably bound.
As I was developing today’s photograph, I kept feeling a word as I worked on the photo, and that word was freedom. There was something about the model’s confident leaning forward and forward-looking gaze. The bear, in as much as a taxidermied, 3/4ths of bear can look excited and eager looked, well, excited and eager.
I thought about how nature makes me feel free. As a child, I was allowed to wander woods and streams, beaches and wild spaces by myself. These experiences instilled in me a sense of autonomy as well as wonder and awe. I was a tremendously lonely child, but when I was in nature, my boon companion–imagination–stepped forward to keep my mind occupied with stories, songs, and wonderings. In nature, I was neither lonely nor–with no other human in sight–was I alone. I felt complete and alive and my brain sparked with rushing ideas. What was under that rock? Who or what lived in the hollow beneath that tree’s roots? Everything was magic and alive and full of possibility. There was freedom in nature, and my soul sang a song in response.
The sense of freedom I saw in today’s photo, the reflections about loneliness and aloneness and the difference between the two…why, these things led me to address Loneliness at last. I felt clearly a deep sense of gratitude for the terribly and empty and lorn spaces loneliness had taken me over the years, and my writing to “Dear Loneliness” was suddenly easy.
When that writing was done, the photo needed a title, but my writing had led me to what the man and the bear were doing. They were, like me, an artist and his imagination who had risen long before dawn and were greeting the sunrise. They were, like me, renewing their daily vow to spin creation anew from the chaos and darkness of their journey.
The birds and trees in the background of this photo were photographed separately in Tartu, Estonia, when the model and I were both there in May 2019. A book we wrote about Estonia was released this month, first in Estonia and then in the US. Thanks to the pandemic, neither of us could be at the book release in Tartu, so this photo also contains a subtle sad bow to the loneliness and isolation that the pandemic has brought to many of us.
30 November 2020, “Watching the Sun Rise in Tartu”, a photograph by Jinn Bug, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.