Essay Twenty-Two BEYOND IMAGE STORIES
Scientists involved in understanding human learning and development have been intrigued for many years by the Nature/Nurture debate. Biologically, while we are all born in pretty much the same manner, it’s obvious that as we grow into maturity, we develop into very different people. It’s not just a matter of looks, but also personality, emotional attitudes, intelligence, learning styles etc.
What puzzles these learned men is trying to analyze which aspect of our existence determines “who we ultimately become”; is it internal biology, or the influences of our external environment? The Nature advocates claimed that our psychological, behavioral, and emotional makeup is largely determined by our parents’ genes and our ancestry - we are the net sum of our biology, determined by chance (or design) at birth. Our DNA is our destiny. The opposing viewpoint stresses that while nature supplies the framework, basically we are born a blank slate, or at most we arrive pre-packaged with a predisposition towards certain traits, but it is our upbringing, parenting, our environmental influences, our relationships and our education that really determine who we are. Obviously our height, race and eye color are genetic, but our personality, affect, learning styles attitudes and probably our religious beliefs and number of friends are determined by our environment - by what happens to us after birth. In recent years, the debate has shifted away from which one is responsible to an acknowledgement that both have influence, but just what is the extent of influence? Which controls what?
In an earlier essay, I mentioned image stories, which are past incidents that are strongly remembered and seem to have a personal importance well out of proportion to their specific details. I postulated that certain of these incidents continue to influence who we are today, not because they were dramatic, traumatic or life changing, but that somehow they keyed into something we intuitively know is essential to our being. I think this same “mythic significance” can not only be connected to incidents like image stories, but it also applies to places we have been or visited, and objects we have owned or collected. The memory or recall involved here is psychic memory. Throughout our lives, we have known special places, areas, objects and possessions that have an unexplainable importance to us and seemingly are some sort of focus for peace, solace, comfort and inspiration. Some of them may look special, while others are hopelessly uninspiring visually, some may be close and accessible, while others may be far away or long ago.
These are not places that anyone else would necessarily see as special. They don’t have to be grand or elegant, nor are they required to be scenic or spectacular. They are, however, places we know to be personally very important. Whether these places exist in our childhood or in our present backyard, they have a meaningful quality, and to remember them is to experience feelings and sensations that elevate the occasion.
In Essay Fifteen, I mentioned that when I was a child, my family and I had visited a place in New England (although I cannot remember where) that had wonderful doors. They were exquisitely carved with exposed levers, wheels, cogs and other wooden mechanisms that moved intricately when the door lever was pulled. When I picture the doors in action, it is not the technology or skill that comes through but the sense of wonder. I discovered that something ordinary and real (a door) could be transformed into a thing of wonder, a magical super reality. If you could make an ordinary door into a fantasy dream, then you could do that with the other “ordinaries” in your life. In retrospect, that awareness helped me to learn to see more intently. It helped me to understand that I could never know by glancing and confirming, but it gave me permission to study the ordinary to perhaps discover the extraordinary. That realization of the power of transcendence (I think) was the beginning of feeling that I was an artist.
I could tell you about a raging torrent of a waterfall; I visited in my early teens where the cascading water roared over the cliff edge, through a crevasse and then vanished from sight, beneath the ground and its base. There was no river flowing away that I could see. The signs around, explained that it drained into an underground cavern, and re-emerged several thousand yards to the East. Above the falls, the river ran quiet and still. In a heartbeat, it was transformed into a maelstrom of thundering energy ... and then swallowed up. The energy was gone - it had been transformed. At the time, I had no place to put this, I was young and the memory was all about water. I knew I loved that memory, but I was unaware of the significance it would have.
It was only recently, as an adult that the connection became apparent to me, and it came out through my photography. I photograph quite a few landscape type images, and many of my photographs have holes, openings, windows and portals which I feel change the quality of vision and understanding. I had written a brief “blurb” for a show catalogue that said:
“...And I have long been intrigued by light and energy that comes through holes, sneaks around edges and shimmers off of translucent surfaces, origin unknown, destination a mystery. To me this is light and energy that shows us more than what is merely there...”
While talking to someone at the show, my waterfall suddenly came back to me, and it was all clear why I had carried that with me all these years. At that moment, it was apparent that the photographs of a middle aged man were the result of the memory of his thirteen-year-old self. At that moment, I could also see that the boy at the waterfall, many, many years in the past, was directing my adult vision.
Certainly, what I have been talking about is personal and comes from my own life and experiences, and I am not suggesting that these incidents apply to you. Rather, I am suggesting that as you look into your own past, memory and history, you attempt to re-discover those little treasures from your past that represent a milestone, a touchstone or a talisman that has your own personal story and mystery throughout its fabric.
The next few essays will deal with accessing your own highly charged memories and objects, and some suggestions as to what you can do with them. As always, I invite any comments or observations you might have.