Photographs As Writing Prompts

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R took this photo of me by the Bay of Bengal (that’s his finger in the top left corner), when we had a break of a couple of hours between taking part in rituals at various temples in Tamil Nadu with his parents. The flowers in my hair came from these ceremonies. Looking at the vibrant colors now cheers me. Seeing vast Lake Michigan yesterday also made this earlier by-the-shore photo feel resonant two months later.

I’m at the Ragdale Foundation for a few weeks on a fellowship:  it’s a beautiful place to write and work. Yesterday, I met up with a former resident here, Michele Morano, and we walked along the shores of Lake Michigan with her young son. Michele is also a writer, and asked me what I was working on. I mentioned that I had brought with me a couple of folders of essay drafts, but that I couldn’t bear to delve into the messy drafts.

Over tea we ended up talking about our recent (December) trips to India. Michele’s descriptions of Delhi and Varanasi and all the details she mentioned (the ghats, the carnation and rose petals, the getting sick) brought back some of my own memories of my time in Tamil Nadu. I got to thinking about photographs.

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A sculpture at a hotel where we had breakfast- showcasing modernity and planned obsolescence; an ancient culture and the Apple logo on a metal apple. The contradictions that are everywhere in India. That’s my mother-in-law off to the side, who always looks elegant in whatever sari she is wearing.

Before leaving for Ragdale, I had an appointment at the computer store to address the fact that I have four different photo libraries- it somehow happened from transferring what was on my previous computers to my current one. I had trouble even finding my recent photos from India. When I located the photos from our India trip, I glanced through most of the photos (I created an album), and it brought back some of my memories, too.

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My first overseas travel with R. Again, the colors! Flowers floating in a brass pot of water. I don’t know what those bright red flowers are called. Do you? This photograph reminds me that it took me a few months after our wedding to decide I did in fact want to wear a wedding ring (I never wore a traditional engagement ring), but I knew I wanted toe rings to wear on my second toes, which signify that you’re married.

Look through photos from any particular time in your life and wait for one that suggests a story or that rises from the desktop a bit, that calls to you, talks to you, that you want to spend time with a little more. What made you take the photo in the first place?  What’s the story behind the image and within the person who was moved to capture that image in the first place? If you’re feeling stuck, look at photos. Write about one or two. These three captured my imagination when I looked back at them. I am writing about them now.

The Countries of Sickness and Health

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Molly’s wanderlust / continents tattoo, designed to resemble henna, caught my eye at a charging station at JFK and sparked my conversation with her.

In the car on the way to the airport, my husband (R), more careful than I, asked the requisite last minute questions—Do you have your passport? (Yes, packed since last week). Do you have your visa? This second question gave me pause.

I had a current visa, yes. The problem was that my 10-year visa to India, a total pain to get, was on my previous, expired passport. I had not really used my passport since my last trip to India four years ago, and therefore had not made the connection that my visa was on the old passport…and that my old passport was still in our apartment.

We turned around and I ran back into the apartment to retrieve my expired passport. Had I left it with other inessentials at my parents’ house instead of at our new place, we would have missed the flight to New York—which meant we likely would not have made our other flights.

We are flying together for the first time—to New York and then to Chennai via Dubai—in order to have me meet R’s grandmother and other relatives. Not only is it our first flight together, it is our first overseas trip, as well as my first time traveling with my in-laws. We are meeting them in Chennai. It’s not a low-stakes trip—but then nothing about this year has been low stakes.

It turned out that having a current visa on my old passport was good enough, but I had watched the look on my husband’s face and registered the sinking in my stomach, thinking of his parents who had spent time and effort planning our itinerary and what they would say if I was unable to go.

Go without me, I said to R. I can go to the consulate in NY and then take a later flight. It’s not that easy, R said. We looked at each other. Maybe they just won’t let us go. How could we not think about the irrational fear of Muslims or anyone who is brown or “different?”  The fear that anyone who looks like us (two tired teachers) could be terrorists. The unbelievable rise of Trump. The fact that flights this time of year are packed. I wasn’t thinking about the time of year—school vacations, holidays. I wasn’t thinking about the color of our skin. Being married means having to think about things more. It’s not just my own trip I would have derailed, which (while not ideal), I could have dealt with.

It has been over four years since I have left the country other than a few quick jaunts to Toronto. I had forgotten many things until the last week—calling my credit card company so they don’t freeze my account after a foreign transaction; packing extra Ziploc bags, toilet paper, and Kleenex; filling prescriptions for malaria meds.

Even being in NYC (even just JFK) is a different country. This past fall, I did a little writing-related travel and attended a LOT of readings. I was out a lot, but not dancing and not seeing the world. Not writing as much as I want and need to.

I think I tried to make up for a year where I felt underwater and in a country where I did not speak the language— the world of living with a sick family member (my grandmother—her stroke in my bed, calling 911, my family and I at the hospital and Jewish Home in shifts) and the almost equally strange and horrifying  (to me) world of wedding planning minutiae and decisions (themes, colors, invitations, guest lists, seating arrangements, menus) collided.

I felt frequently mute and as though I could not stop talking and also was not heard. It was though we (R and I) were living inside a snow globe. The rest of the world went on outside it. Or the rest of the world was the globe and I was adrift in some other galaxy—the world of pale yellow hospital masks and thickening agents, countless sari blouse measurements and fittings, and telling my ninth graders on repeat that it was “minus five” each time they forgot to bring their copies of Romeo & Juliet or a writing implement to class. We muddled our way through Shakespeare and the end of the school year. My grandmother is able to swallow again, to speak again, to walk. I survived wedding planning, moving, and the first six months of marriage.

Even with potential visa troubles last week, I realized I still have my real passport—a clean bill of health, a reason to travel (a grandmother to meet), the resources to make it possible, a companion with whom to go. I realize these are not small things; these are everything. I am grateful.

The wanderlust tattoo:  At JFK, I met Molly and her friend Linda, who were en route to Dubai, Kenya, and the Maldives. They were on their way to meet friends from Sweden. They met these friends four years ago (while traveling); now they all sport the same tattoo and travel together. I didn’t ask Molly what she or Linda do for work in Cleveland or if they have spouses or children. It didn’t seem to matter, because it doesn’t. They are travelers. That is enough.