(This is the final chapter of a story told elsewhere but I think it works by itself.)
In the 1991 movie, City Slickers, the grizzled old cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) asks city slicker Mitch (Billy Crystal), “Do you know what the secret to life is?” Mitch shrugs and says, “No, what?” Curly raises his black-gloved index finger and says, “This.”
“Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
“That’s great but, what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you gotta figure out.”
I was a young photographer. It’s one of the only things I learned from my father. He had an Olympus Pen 35mm half-frame, and a Yashica 120 double lens reflex. He also had a darkroom in the basement. He let me use all of it.
I found some Ansel Adams books and learned his zone system. Most of my photos were taken outside, usually landscapes. When I left home I stopped taking photos for a couple of years but when I moved to Oakland in 1980, I bought a Nikon FM2 35 mm and became a street photographer. Sadly, I lost (or discarded) most of my early photos and negatives.
I hope you know who Ansel Adams is. He was one of the most significant American photographers around the middle of the 20th century. A Master Photographer, if you will.
After moving to Atlanta (1987), I shifted my creative energy towards theater and performance and sold my Nikon. I regret that. I loved that camera. When cameras became digital, I bought and used a bunch of them, but didn’t ever get serious about photography with them. I became a snapshot photographer, mostly taking pictures of family and friends, usually while traveling.
Due to a delightful confluence of factors, Pam and I moved back to Oakland in 1999. I sold my yoga business but I own the space so I make money off the rent and I don’t have to work full-time here. The extra time off has resulted in a return to creative photography. Part of what spurred this is simply that phone cameras have become very good. My snapshots became more interesting, more playful, more creative, and this has rekindled my interest in film photography.
I now own several cameras, including a couple of pinhole cameras, a vintage Diana, a contemporary Diana clone, a Pentax 645, and… a Nikon FM2!
I’m a dilettante. I have always been a dilettante.
dilettante dɪlɪˈtanti noun & adjective.
A lover of the fine arts; a person who cultivates the arts as an amateur; a person who takes an interest in a subject merely as a pastime and without serious study, a dabbler.
I used to think I was a dilettante in the first two senses but I have come to realize the latter sense is more accurate. I am a dabbler. Someone who is not serious in his interests. A dilettante in the pejorative sense.
I’m one of those people who knows a little about a lot. I have been an actor. A lighting designer. A technical director. A graphic designer. A website designer. A writer of poetry and essays. A yoga instructor. A digital “artist.” I have mastered none of these. I have never advanced beyond amateur in anything.
I am not being self-deprecating or critical of myself. I’m just acknowledging something about my… personality? My interests. My choices. I took cello lessons for five years then gave it up on a dime. I own two ukuleles and an electric guitar but I haven’t picked them up in months. I have a list of about 23 creative projects I would like to work on. I haven’t completed any of them in the last three years.
In terms of career and creative expression, I have never found just “one thing.” I have never chosen just “one thing.” I still haven’t even decided what I want to be when I grow up! My favorite thing to do when I had straight jobs was to quit them. Sure, I held onto some of them for years but I ultimately left them all. This is who I am. I am A-OK with it.
I invented Zen when I was fifteen years old. I kept a journal and I spent one summer writing down my philosophy of life. I didn’t know that I was inventing anything. I was just musing to myself. Then I stumbled on the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It was basically my journal only better written. It blew my young mind. Did I become a practitioner of Zen? Nope. Start meditating? Nope. I moved on to my next book, The Gurdjieff Work, which I found in the Woods Hole Drug Store.
In an earlier episode I mentioned my Tarot deck as the only artifact I still have from childhood. I was wrong. I still have those two books. I have since read many books about Zen and Gurdjieff but I never adopted their practices. I don’t even meditate very often.
Kenshō is a Zen word that means, “seeing one’s true essence.” It’s an insight or awakening, but it doesn’t mean enlightenment. In Zen practice, it is sought through extensive meditation and tutelage. It is considered a kind of threshold for further learning and insight. I may have experienced Kenshō.
It happened in the middle of the night. I woke up in a state of pure understanding and awareness. Of everything. Who I am. Who we are. What life is. Why we’re experiencing it. I was so giddy with it that I woke up Pam and tried to explain it to her. It was incredible. I felt nothing but excitement and joy. I was full of love and I experienced oneness with everything. I talked for a while. Pam listened with deep interest. Then we went back to sleep.
It wasn’t a dream. We talked about it in the morning. But it was gone from me. I was just plain old Eric. Struggling Eric. Eric in denial about my childhood abuse. Eric with mood swings. Eric with years of therapy ahead of himself. Eric on antidepressants.
At some point in my young reading about Zen and mysticism, I came across the idea of spiritual Masters. Of course, I rejected the concept because I was an angry wounded child with no trust of, or faith in, authority figures of any kind. I was especially put off by the idea that “enlightenment” was only possible through years of hard work under a guru/teacher, and that even then it wasn’t guaranteed. How is it truly “enlightenment” if it can only be achieved by a Master bequeathing it to you? It sounded too much like capitalism which I had already figured out was a rigged system of exploitation for the benefit of a select few. (I was a teenage anarchist.)
Reading Ansel Adams’ books on photography, in a sense, changed my mind. I don’t remember the specific passages, or even which book(s) it may have been, but I got the sense that Adams was a very wise person, not just about photography, but about life. Reading Adams was just like reading about Zen. Adams was known as a Master Photographer but I felt like I was reading a Spiritual Master.
When I saw the scene in City Slickers, I was immediately reminded of Adams. Photography was his one thing! It was almost a Kenshō moment for me.
Yesterday my depression reared its head. I was struggling with a decision about how best to spend my afternoon. I wanted to write but I also wanted to shoot some photos. Then I started thinking about the watercolor paints I bought three months ago and haven’t used yet. Then I started looking at cameras on ebay. Then I remembered Jack Palance’s finger. I’m 62 years old and I haven’t found my one thing. I will never master anything because I always quit. I always move on to the next new thing.
A Zen trope is the beggar monk walking by foot from town to town in disheveled robes. Having renounced worldly possessions, he lives a life free of attachment and exists in spiritual contentment merely to exist.
I read and write haiku, which has much in common with Zen. There have been a handful of acknowledged haiku Masters and the one that I am most enthralled with is Bashō. Who lived exactly like the aforementioned monk.
There is much in common between haiku and Zen. Traditional haiku attempt to create an ‘aha’ moment. They are an attempt to bypass the intellect and inspire a moment of insight in the reader. Like a Kenshō. Isn’t this also the aim of photography?
As of today, as of this moment, as of this writing, I am giving up my attachment to the very notion of needing to “find my one thing.” I am a dabbler. A dilettante.
And with this claim, I think I’ve found my one thing.
(It’s not the duck.)