To be like thee

By David LaBelle

In high school he wasn’t an athlete, a member of student government and didn’t work on the school newspaper or yearbook.   In fact, Mark Steven went relatively unnoticed, like most in the choppy sea of teenagers trying to navigate their way through adolescence.

DSC_2631.jpg

Steve 

Two years younger than me, my brother has always been an animal whisperer of sorts, able to communicate with animals tame and wild.  Neighbors often asked him to care for their horses, dogs or cats when they were out of town.  In fact, most adults loved Steven because he wasn’t loud or often linked to mischief, like me.  Even now, when he speaks about his three dogs – Harry, Harriet and Harry Junior – his eyes twinkle and his voice dances with a paternal pride.   Steve, as he now prefers to be called, spends much of his hard-earned money feeding hundreds of pigeons, geese and roosters because he doesn’t have the heart to kill any of them.

DSC_2607BT.jpg

Steve with Harry Junior

Steve hasn’t had an easy life.  Some might even say he’s been dealt a bad, even unfair hand.  Though life growing up was not easy for any of us, notably my mother and sisters, Steve’s road has been especially hard.

Because of his tender heart, many have taken advantage of him, including a company he worked for which poisoned and nearly killed him.  Steve contracted copper sulfate poisoning which exited his body in various places and eventually turned one of his ears green.  The ear became enlarged and infected.  Had he not performed surgery himself with a pocket knife, his ear could have been lost and perhaps even his life.  Like many big businesses with money, the company found a way to avoid fault and compensation.  Such is life when one does not have the means to challenge those who do.  To this day, the enlarged right ear causes Steve to be understandably self-conscious, especially around cameras.

In spite of many hardships, Steve maintains a great sense of humor, telling stories with such crazed, exaggerated animation few in his audience can keep from doubling over with laughter.  He has always seen himself more as a grateful survivor than a wounded victim.

DSC_5222T.jpg

In Concho, Arizona, a small hiccup of a town where the wind threatens daily to reshape the landscape, my brother Steve is beloved.

“I have never seen him unhappy; he is always clowning, that’s his way,” says neighbor Ron Aycox, who has known Steve at least 15 years.  “He is always there when I need him, and if you are down in the dirt, he’ll sure lift you up. He is very kind-hearted and a very good friend.”

IMG_3944T.jpg

Years ago with two goslings 

Like my father and youngest brother Brian, Steve can fix anything – a car or truck engine, fence, or broken water pipe. (I can fix nothing and loathe working on cars or anything mechanical.)

He is also an accomplished bowler. With just a little luck and sponsorship, he might have turned pro.

Steve also has a beautiful singing voice, like my big sister Faye Marie.  Had the pair hit the road as a traveling duet, they might have become a famous brother-sister act.

DSC_2534T.jpg

Faye Marie and Steve together in January

But perhaps my brother Steve’s greatest gift is his compassionate heart which genuinely cares for all living creatures – people and animals.

Though he seldom speaks the word “love” Steve lives the word by his daily example.

DSC_8069.jpg

The tender-hearted animal whisperer

He has spent many of his nearly 65 years living with and helping my father – a symbiotic relationship that benefited both for two decades – but of late has become painfully challenging.

DSC_6504T.jpg

Checking on my dad in late March

Two years ago, my aging father fell and Steve lifted him and drove him to the doctor, despite his own excruciating pain.   He was kicked in the chest by a horse earlier that morning, breaking four ribs.

Along with Judy, my Dad’s sister, Steve has pretty much become an unpaid caregiver and taxi.   He is expected to fix anything that breaks and respond to every whim of my 89-year-old father, including the challenges of bathroom duty.  My father stays up late watching television and keeps a whistle, blowing it through the night whenever he wants or needs something.  My brother confessed he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, though he still rises before dawn to work on nearby ranchesAnd that was before my dad fell in January, fracturing his leg, beginning a spiraling health decline which now includes hospice intervention and even more around-the-clock care.

Recently, I posted several pictures on Instagram of my sister helping my dad during a recent visit, and she does have a way with those unable to help themselves.   For the past 15 years, she’s been a caregiver for her husband Jules who suffered a paralyzing stroke.  She is amazing.

But so are Steve and my Aunt Judy, who rents a room from my father.  They are the real heroes when it comes to caring for my dad.   Since the rest of my siblings live and work far from Arizona, caring for my father has always fallen Steve’s broad shoulders.

DSC_6515T.jpg

The loving, patient son holds his father while Judy, my dad’s sister cleans him.

Though my father is more gentle, thoughtful and less selfish in old age – a sharp contrast to younger years when a violent temper made him unpredictable and quite scary at times – he can still be incredibly demanding and unreasonable.

I have two brothers and two sisters, and I love and admire each of them.  Each has carved a successful life path after challenging beginnings.

But there is a special love and respect for Steve, coupled with a gnawing sadness for the way I treated him growing up. That I was not a better, kinder brother to this gentle soul still haunts me.  I picked on him, excluded him, bullied him, rolled him down a steep hill in a stainless-steel barrel, even stung a horse’s rump with a small stone while he was sitting on the animal bareback.  Though many apologies have been offered, and he has said he forgives me, deep down I know it still hurts him.

IMG_1589.JPG

No doubt you have heard people foolishly and brashly say they wouldn’t change a thing if they had their life to live over.

I am not one of them.

\If only there was an adolescence “do over” or a magic wand to erase the many unkind words and selfish actions which have hurt others, beginning with my brothers, sisters and parents.

I thank God continually He blesses me with eyes to see how I have hurt others and enough time to become a better human being.

Each time I drive away from Concho, Arizona, my eyes fill with love and gratitude, thankful for the family I have been blessed with.

And for my crazy brother, Steve.

DSC_2528T.jpg

O to be like Thee” is a hymn we sometimes sing in worship.   Though written about Christ, some of the words are appropriate when I think about my brother.

“O to be like Thee! full of compassion,

Loving, forgiving, tender and kind…”

 

 

 

Advertisements

Small dances with celebrity

by David LaBelle

One of the bonuses of my profession has been brief encounters with famous people.

My son Tucker, who had accepted an offer to play lacrosse in West Virginia, went through a spell where he played John Denver’s Country Roads nonstop. He asked if I had photographed the famous singer.

“Yes, I did,” I answered.  “Matter of fact, I spent two days following him during a trip to Utah rehearsing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1981.”  I can still recall a conversation we had about creationism versus evolution while the two of us sat alone on the steps of Utah State University in Logan.  Contrary to the “country boy” image, Denver was a deep thinker, a philosopher.  It broke my heart when he died in the crash of his small plane years later along the California coast.

Another celebrity who has been on my mind this week is the late Gordon Parks.  I met Parks in 1996 when he spoke at Western Kentucky University.

Gordon 3.jpg

Gordon Parks, 1996 @ David LaBelle

I was familiar with Park’s work with the Farm Security Administration and his book The Learning Tree, which he later directed as a movie with the same name.  I knew he was the first African-American staff photographer to work for Life Magazine.

The ride to the airport

I volunteered to drive Parks to the Nashville airport after his lecture and luncheon.  One of my students, Kim Hughes, a big fan of the legendary photographer, joined us.

A few miles out of town I shared my disappointment, even embarrassment for the lunch the school served.  It is my habit to eat whatever is put in front of me but I couldn’t choke down that meal. Parks admitted he couldn’t eat his lunch either.  A true gentleman, he wasn’t about to complain.

“How about we pull off the interstate in Franklin and go get us something to eat at McDonald’s,” I offered.

“I’d like that,” he eagerly agreed. “I am pretty hungry.”

It’s not every day you get to take a true Renaissance Man to McDonald’s for lunch. I was giddy.

 

have fuin gordon and meT.jpg

Driving with one hand and shooting a picture with the other, a nervous Parks asked if I always make pictures while I am driving.

It struck me, as we sat eating lunch together at McDonalds, how much times had changed since Park’s segregated childhood in Fort Scott, Kansas.  If any of those serving us that afternoon had any idea who this man was and what he endured and accomplished, they likely would have lined up to shake his hand.

Some things are impossible to comprehend

I will never know the fear, anger, violent discrimination and frustration Parks endured because of the dark skin clothing his spirit, the skin he was born in. Try as I might to imagine it, I cannot put on black skin.

But I can recall the fiery hatred I saw burning in the eyes of grown men and women dressed in white robes and pointed hoods while covering Klan rallies in the South.  I can still smell the obscene scent of racism filling my nostrils and cutting my heart, and the tension while moving past teenagers brandishing automatic rifles across their chest, charged with guarding the entrance to a meeting spot.  “I smell a journalist and a Jew,” one of them growled as a Jewish reporter and I worked our way into the gathering.

I also remember the numbing fear of covering summer race riots in California and realizing enraged, irrational mobs were bent on killing me because of the color of my white skin and perceived privileged occupation.  I watched and photographed with disbelief as angry rioters tried to kill those they perceived different than themselves.  Those were dangerous times when I feared both the mobs and the police.

Yet, even those temporary fears are nothing compared to the continual, oppressive pain experienced and endured by Parks and so many others of his color and generation.

It’s hard to imagine a dozen winters have passed since making a long, overnight drive from Lexington, Kentucky to Fort Scott, Kansas to attend Gordon Park’s funeral.

IMG_2358.JPG

Sunset over the Fort Scott, Kansas cemetery where Parks was buried earlier in the day. © David LaBelle

Why think of Parks now?

I have a delightful and talented photojournalism student from Chicago, an amiable young man whose infectious smile belies deep thoughts swirling within.  He recently shared with our class his dream of creating images showing black people in a positive light, instead of the many published pictures of people fighting, addicted to drugs or being arrested.

At 21 years of age, Jermaine Jackson is four years younger than Parks was when he bought his first camera.

Moved by his presentation, I asked Jermaine to expound on the thoughts and pictures he shared in class.

Jermaine

Jermaine Jackson

“Since my youth, I’ve always seen award winning photos that contained a person of color suffering. The earliest one I remember is the one with child with the vulture in the background waiting on the child to die.  Being from Chicago, all the media show is black people showing grief and trauma. A few years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times photos of the year included a photo of a mother crying over her dead child.  How many times have we seen that? The positives are rarely shown. That has inspired me to attempt to change the narrative by photographing people of color in a positive light, via celebration or any other time their suffering is not being exploited.”

Gordon Parks was a true Renaissance Man – Photographer, Songwriter, Pianist, Writer, Director, Composer and Filmmaker.  And he wore his celebrity with quiet poise and grace.

That he chose the camera and words as weapons of choice over his fists to fight prejudice, continues to impress and inspire.

I hope Jermaine follows a similar path.  Given his creative eye and infectious personality, the chances are good.

And may we all learn true love is colorblind.

 

 

 

 

Words to heal by

David LaBelle

I believe every community has one – a wizard, a medicine man or woman, a sage – a wise soul who sees with the eye of the heart.  Calm beacons in life’s many storms, they usually lead quietly, often in the shadows, avoiding the evaporating shine of fame.  We seek them out when building bridges, fighting battles or feeding the hungry.  Or when we need healing salve for our aching souls.

For my final post of 2017, I share with you a poet, author, teacher, counselor and friend to many, including me.

DSC_3814.jpg

Major Ragain 2017

Polio stole Major Ragain’s happy, jumping legs when he was just an eight-year-old boy.  He learned to adjust, to drink from the cup life had given him and do so with gratitude. What his silenced legs could not do, his strong arms, muscled chest and hungry imagination could do and did. “Maj” as most call him, fed his curiosity with stories and life experiences.  His hungry, intelligent spirit led him across the globe.  He blossomed into an accomplished world citizen, respected teacher and honored poet.  Earning a PhD from Kent State and teaching since 1960, Dr. Major D. Ragain, was an instructor of English at Kent State since 1981.  But nobody I know calls him Doctor, nor does he encourage it.  He is Maj.

“For me, the polio was a splendid opportunity to be held in the fire,” Maj assures. “It took me in its tongs and held me in the fire and for that, I am stronger and more resilient and more forgiving of pain.”

Maj has many loves in his nearly 80 years – his wife LuAnn, his children and veterans.  But perhaps one of his greatest loves is story, particularly poetry.   He recalls when poetry’s arrow first pierced his searching heart.

“It happened very early. Poetry was alive and was part of the great continuity of things. And I was, as anyone, interested in that continuity, something much bigger than my own life.  Early teens when I started to dream that stuff.  And I began to see that imagination was a quickened form of spirit. And I began to read more.”

One of the first poems Maj really connected with was “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” by A.E. Housman.  Written in 1896, the words had a profound effect on Ragain.  He can still quote it by heart today.

“I began thinking, what is that?  And in that poem, is a whole kernel of what’s sad and beautiful about being alive.  Youth, old age, the living fade out of it, but life goes on. We die but life doesn’t die. And there is beauty in it.”  He adds, “I didn’t write any poetry until I was about 35.   I wrote down my feelings and my thoughts, things like that, but they were just that. A poem is beyond that.  A poem has to have its own reason for being in the world, apart from you wanting it to be. It all comes from some deeper urgency, like it wants to be out with all other poems.”

DSC_9209.jpg

Maj following a poetry reading in 2014

 In poetry, he wanders a magical, limitless landscape of imagination and emotion, always searching in that deep lake without bottom.  The poem allows him to drink from his own soul, see his own moving reflection, and the reflections of others who have come to drink with him.

The Circle.

Maj, a man who wears a deep sadness, even when he laughs, has a special love for veterans and has given to Warriors Journey Home and The Veterans’ Writing Circle, sponsored in part by Wick Poetry.

I watch him, painfully, as he grimaces while trying to lift his large chest and twisted body from his car to his wheelchair in bitter cold.  His loving wife LuAnn patiently awaits, helping only when he asks.  It’s an arduous process which often leaves Maj gasping for breath, and lately he “totes around a dandy little device that makes its own oxygen” to the meetings.

He doesn’t complain because he believes his mission is worth the pain.

He uses words as medicine,

“There’s something spiritual in gathering with Maj, to read and listen,” says Douglas Kulow.  “He gives me courage to write more.   And when he shares his words as fertile gifts he nourishes our imagination to grow. I always leave with more than I came, a seed bag full of new ideas.”

Once a week, for the past 8 years, Maj has pulled himself up to a table with up to 12 souls, the numbers vary weekly, and for two hours, listens and shares and encourages.

DSC_2786.jpg

Maj and wife LuAnn during poetry night at Last Exit Books in Kent, Ohio

Though I am not a vet, the group has adopted me into their family.  For two hours we read and share, led by our word Yoda.  Several members drive an hour each way to commune, often in bad weather.

Composed mostly of veterans from wars in Vietnam, Beirut, Afghanistan – some with reoccurring nightmares and PTSD from the killings they have seen and perhaps contributed to –  The Veterans’ Writing Circle is a therapy pool for the mind and heart.  It’s a safe place where honest and comforting words massage deep emotional wounds and where grown men can cry.   A safe place where one is able to drink from his own soul, see his own reflection as well as those about him who have also come to drink.

Says Jill, “Maj has a way of reading between the lines and seeing what a story or poem is really saying through the person that has written it, sometimes seeing more than what the writer realized they were expressing. Maj is a gift to all that know him.”

Andy adds, “Maj is a wise and noble Chieftain, with a penetrating gaze that sees deep, and a gentle heart behind his words. I am honored to know him.”  –

The power of poetry to transform and heal.

Maj David.jpg

David Hassler, Director of Wick Poetry Center shows his affection for his fellow poet and friend during a reading in 2014

 

Using the healing power of placing words on paper, Maj gently encourages each member of the circle to reach into his or her own soul and liberate painful emotions with written words.  It’s a magical, healing process, allowing some of the poison to escape.

“One word: trust,” says a decorated veteran who has battled PTSD since being sent to Vietnam in his twenties.

“It has taken me 40 years to talk about this,” he confesses.  “Maj taught me to put my feelings in words and those words on paper.  He told me to focus on one or two words at a time.”

Another vet, Dave Agard, says, “Maj is a beacon seeking stories.  If you sail to his light, telling your story along the way, you will find yourself there.”

Though the group meets in a church building, the gathering doesn’t open with prayer. Instead, Ragain will offer updates on members who may be ill or off on some adventure.  Sometimes he shares poignant words from a poem another has written.  Or, he shares a slice from his life, perhaps a lesson from a haircut given him by his wife, Lu, in a cemetery.   It’s evident Maj needs to give, to share, as much as we need to catch his wisdom in whatever containers we bring each week.  His is one of the few voices that can silence the room.  He chooses his words carefully, as if each a rare coin from a limited collection.

I sense it is sharing that keeps him alive.

For Maj05.JPG

Family and friends gather at Maj and LuAnn’s home for a celebration of life after Maj’s dear mother passed away.

One night, while sharing his struggle with growing health issues, he groaned, “I don’t want to lose you.”   Warning the time was coming where he could no longer make it to the church building, especially on snowy days, he asked if we could meet in his home during bad weather.  “I don’t want to lose you,” he repeated again, this time nearly choking on his words. “It took me too long to find you.”

End

In an era when so many doctors have neither the time nor interest in listening to patients, and when many teachers suffer under the weight of apathy and state regulations, we gravitate to the “unofficial” counselors and healers in our communities.  After all, there is a beautiful purity when money isn’t the motivation for action.

They are angels without wings.

Maj has learned to see love and kindness when others saw hated and judgment.  He drew strength from personal grief to ease the suffering of others.

IMG_0464.JPG

The back porch of The Wick Poetry Center

“Words can’t sit on my lap and give me comfort the way a child can.  They don’t smell, or wriggle or ask innocent questions.  But they do help, when they come from sweet fountains.”

– Maj Ragain

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 5.45.34 AM.png

                                                                                                                                                           

Clouds+Pile+Up+in+the+North+cover.jpg

Maj’s latest book of poems

To learn more about Major Ragain, I have attached a few links.

Also, with his permission, here is Maj’s email address: mragain@kent.edu

https://www.press53.com/poetry-collections/clouds-pile-up-in-the-north-new-selected-poems

https://vimeo.com/247839331

https://www.kent.edu/wick/reading-series-201718

 

What legends are made of

by David LaBelle

We all need heroes, guideposts who show us the way through this world of tangled paths.

Tuesday, one of mine left this earth.

Bobby at 96.jpg

I never saw Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr play baseball, since he retired in 1951, the year I was born.  Though both of us were raised in southern California, less than 60 miles apart, I wasn’t even aware of Doerr until The Teammates by the late David Halberstam introduced us.

After this discovery, I began a mission to find him, hoping he was still alive.   It took some doing, but eventually I met the legend and was blessed to spend a few hours with him over a couple of days in 2014.   At 96, Doerr was the oldest living member of National Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

“Beloved,” is a word often used to describe him.

In his later years, he was known for being prickly Ted William’s lifelong friend and the greatest second baseman in Boston’s storied history.  Few individuals could navigate William’s fiery personality with the grace and forgiveness Doerr could.  When asked about William’s documented tantrums, he smiled and softly shared, “Ted had a tough childhood.”

If Bobby Doerr ever said an unkind word about anyone, nobody’s sharing it.

 

DSC_8455T

Monica and Bob

With a faith in God, this steady, generous man led by quiet example. Whether playing the game he loved with unequalled passion or caring for his beloved Monica, who suffered with multiple sclerosis much of her life and died in 2003, Doerr was a sober guidepost and contrast to the loud bravado of so many undisciplined and selfish athletes.  He viewed his baseball life as a true privilege and proved it by his actions.  Doerr believed so strongly in giving back to the game and his fans. Hours were spent daily, autographing whatever was sent to him, without charge.  This was a lifetime habit he maintained, even towards the end of his life when his unsteady hands struggled to scribble his own name.  I watched in amazement as he pushed his wheelchair up to a table in his modest room in the assisted-living facility, and sat signing photographs, cards and baseballs.  Who does this anymore? I thought.

DSC_9329.jpg

I’ve been blessed to meet and photograph many incredible people and listen to their stories.  Other than the late John Wooden, a great basketball player and coach, no other sports figure has left a deeper, more positive and lasting impression on me than Bobby Doerr.   Much like the sober Wooden, Doerr was a picture of faith, contentment, grace and humility.

Both lives challenge me to be a better person.

I pray, as I age, I can carry myself with the same dignity and peace I witnessed with these two amazing individuals.

I may never live to see another Halley’s Comet, nor another professional baseball player with the integrity of Bobby Doerr, but I can tell my grandchildren I have met one of the greatest baseball players and gentlemen ever to put on a uniform.

Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr represented everything good about baseball.

Junction City, Oregon-July 4, 2014. Bobby Doerr, 96,Everything.

Thank you, Bob, I am a better person for knowing you.

Our world is one soul less gentle.

 

 

 

….

From a column written for Ruralite Magazine, October, 2014

Most of us have heroes— people we admire and sometimes even seek to imitate. I have a few, most from a time long before I was born, but occasionally I discover a contemporary whose courage or character beckons me to learn more about them.

Three years ago, while reading “The Teammates” by the late David Halberstam, I was introduced to Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman who played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox. A quiet leader on and off the field, his role-model character seemed too good to be true. Of the many people Halberstam immortalized with his writing, perhaps none was dearer to his heart than Bobby Doerr.

The more I read about the man, the more I hungered to meet him, and I wondered if he was still alive.

Thankfully, he was.

 

I wrote to Doerr, hoping for—but not really expecting— a reply to my request for a visit and interview in Oregon. To my surprise, within a week or so I received a handwritten note and a signed Hall of Fame card from the famous ballplayer. He apologized for having to decline my request and explained that his beloved sister, Dorothy, had just died. Since he had been living with his sister, he felt unsure of what the future held for him.

I was stunned and impressed that he wrote back to me, especially during a time of grief and uncertainty. This guy is too good to be true, I thought to myself.

While in Oregon this past summer, I decided to see if I could locate Doerr. I arrived in Portland late, but before dawn the next morning I began an Internet search, hoping to locate baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer.

I was greeted immediately with the headline: Bobby Doerr dead at 96.

My heart dropped.

Not again, I thought. I had waited too long.

In past years, I have planned interviews and photo shoots with famous people, and they died before I could meet them.

I called my wife, almost in tears, sharing what I had learned. I told her I was going to drive to the small town where Doerr last lived and see if I could interview people who knew him.

As I pulled into town heavy hearted, I was surprised to find no signs honoring the famous ballplayer. In fact, there was no visible evidence of his passing. No farewell messages. No flowers at the ballpark bearing his name. Nothing.

Bewildered, I spotted a mailman and asked him if he knew where Doerr had last lived. At first he didn’t recognize the name.

“The Hall of Fame baseball player,” I said. “I know he lived in town or near here for many years.”

Busily sorting mail while walking his route, he stopped and said, “five on six,” then ducked into a building to deliver mail.

Five on six?

DSC_8449T.jpg

I looked up at the street signs and realized it might be some sort of code, so I indulged my hunch and followed the street I was on. Across the railroad tracks and at the end of the road, I found a beautiful retirement and assisted-living complex.

I went inside with camera and notebook, introduced myself and said I had just read that Bobby Doerr had passed. I expressed my condolences and asked if I could talk to somebody who knew the ballplayer.

They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.

“I just had breakfast with him,” quipped a caregiver.

An assistant quickly called for an aide and whispered something to him. The man nodded.

I told them about the website, and they called it up.  Sure enough, it proclaimed Doerr dead and even had a quote from someone speaking about the beloved player.

A prank, acruel hoax for sure.

By midday, I was finally able to meet and interview the baseball legend I so admired.

Sometimes the stars seem to align and you find yourself in exactly the right place at the right time. This was one such time.

 

Bobny and ShureeT.jpg

I want to thank Bob’s son, Don, for sharing his father with the me and the world. And Shuree Sleeper, the Doerr family’s longtime aid and friend, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.  I know both are grieving.

If you’d like to know more about this beloved man, I’ve attached a link to another story I wrote about Doerr and his longtime caregiver.

https://www.ruralite.org/an-uncommon-bond/

I’m also including links from current articles.

http://registerguard.com/rg/sports/36148978-81/boston-red-sox-great-bobby-doerr-dies-at-99.html.csp

http://www.oregonlive.com/obituaries/index.ssf/2017/11/boston_red_sox_great_bobby_doe.html

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/bobby-doerr-red-sox-hall-fame-baseman-dead-99-article-1.3631793

http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/21409314/boston-red-sox-great-bobby-doerr-dies-99

 

 

 

A tribute and visual love letter

Since learning about a dear friend’s passing recently, I have wanted, needed, to write something that expressed how much I loved and appreciated Carolyn Monaco.   But nothing I wrote seemed to fit.   But then I thought about an article I had written which was published this month titled, “A Visual Love Letter.”

In honor of my friend and sister in Christ, I share with you the column and a picture I shot of Carolyn with her husband, Frank, the first day of this year.

 

By David LaBelle

For 50 years, I have dreamed about photographing God.

In the past, I even kidded that when I died, I wanted my family to place a Nikon F camera loaded with 100 ASA film in the casket with me.

I figure I won’t need a fast film with a high ISO because there will be plenty of light, and I’d sure like to be the first to photograph heaven.

Indirectly, from the first days I picked up a camera, I have tried to photograph God by photographing His creation—be it the natural wonders of the world or the wonders of human creations.

Just as we photograph stunning rock formations in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or South Dakota—whose majestic cliffs have been shaped by countless years of breathing winds—we photograph an invisible God by photographing the influence of His Spirit on His creation.

Each of us carries the genetics—the DNA of our father.

I realize I must walk softly and carefully with this subject, and do so with sensitivity, recognizing there are many who do not share my beliefs. Please accept that this column is not meant to be a sermon, but a personal observation and ambition.

I do not mind admitting that when I witness humbling acts of altruism and love, my throat tightens and my eyes fill. In these quiet acts of compassion, I see my God every bit as much as when I behold a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I have always been drawn to these genuine, not performed, moments. In them I see the goodness of mankind and the loving influence of God. In these mini stories, I feel the greatest joy and hope for humanity.

 

Frank and Carolyn Monaco.jpg

While some are drawn to photographing action sports, portraits or nature, I am drawn to quiet relationship scenes of love and compassion—things I often lack in my own life, but continually aspire to own.

My wife and I try to make pictures that reinforce the beauty and love of God on His creation, and try to avoid promoting the opposite.

For me, life looks very different at 65 than it did at 25. I’m confident it is a natural thing as we age to grow more introspective and more deliberate with what time we have left. In my youth, life was a smorgasbord and, like most, I wanted to sample everything.

I have loved many types of photography—from sports to nature, breaking news, celebrities and even some fashion—but lately, more than ever, my heart seeks to capture and share positive pictures that reinforce love and goodness and encourage hope, while glorifying our Creator.

It isn’t that I have not always tried to do this from the time I picked up a camera, but now with the acute recognition of the limited time I have left on this earth, there is an urgency not present 25 years ago.

I am forever reminded and keep this passage from Psalm 90 on the sleeve of my heart: “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”

I photograph God when I record the golden morning light raking across the red earth or prairie grass of Oklahoma, or when evening clouds turn from white to yellow to crimson. I photograph God when I see birds drink the dew of the leaves or eat the crumbs left by man.

Mostly, I photograph God when I see His Spirit working in the lives of His children.

I don’t always love as I should, but often what I see through my lens challenges me to love more purely.

I wish every photograph I make to be a visual love letter to my God.

“She was the love of my life. The best thing that ever happened to me. She was my strength, and blessed me with 3 great children and extended family. She was the most loving and thoughtful person and I look forward to seeing her again in a better place.”  – Frank Monaco

https://www.floridacurrents.com/articles/visuallove/

https://www.ruralite.org/visuallove/

 

 

Allora

by David LaBelle

waiting.jpg

Preparing to navigate the narrow, stone streets between the apartment I’d called home the past four months and the Santa Maria Novella train station, I stood on the sidewalk with three large suitcases and a stuffed, 50-pound camera bag.  My situation suddenly felt hopeless.  Try as I might to stack and organize in a way I could pull everything to the station alone, I couldn’t make it work.  I sighed, considered I might have to wave the white flag and call a cab, then whispered my favorite Italian word, “Allora.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a homeless friend carrying a quart of cold beer on his way to a nearby park appeared.   He smiled and nodded.  “I’m going home, back to America, I told him, or at least I am trying to.”

In limited, broken English he asked if I needed help.  “I don’t have any money to pay you,” I explained.  “Oh no, I help,” he smiled, “no money.”

I could have kissed him.

friend.jpg

I’m going to the train station, I advised.  “No problem,” he assured.  He grabbed two of the heavier bags, stacked them and realized he couldn’t carry his cold beer.

“I can’t let you do this,” I tried to explain.

He looked down, sat his beer behind a chained bicycle in front of the apartment and said, “It’s ok.”

I felt conflicted, fearing another homeless person would likely pass, see the cold beer and feel the windows of heaven had opened.

Together, on the warmest, most humid day since my arrival, we managed the awkward load to the train station.  At the station, I told him I wanted to make one more picture of him, which he allowed. I fished around and found about three euros and tried to give it to him.

“No, No,” he said, waving his hands.  He beamed with the opportunity to be of service.

I don’t mind telling you, my eyes watered as I thanked him and hugged him goodbye.  I reached into my bag and found a bag of peanuts I had bought for the trip and insisted he take them and the few euros.  “Buy yourself another cold beer, please.”  Grudgingly he accepted the small gifts and disappeared, heading back in the direction of the park where he would see friends and eventually sleep on a piece of cardboard.

One could easily be intimidated by this man’s wild appearance, but from the first pre-dawn morning we met and connected over a cup of coffee, there was nothing but tenderness and kindness in his dark eyes.

Like so many I met on the streets of Florence, he is trapped in a place and a system, unable to go home or get the documents to work legally.  He has been without shelter and a home of his own for 8 years and likely will be there many more.  But he is a humble, grateful man, who looks out for his friends, even those that do not speak his language or understand his culture.

On the steps of a museum, a bridge over the Arno, a street corner in Prato, and in front of a bustling train station, my eyes filled with each embrace and emotional goodbye.  These people, despised by some and clinging to shreds of hope for a better life, greatly enriched my life and I pray I did the same for them.

no help.jpg

—-

It’s my nature to smile at people I pass on the street, regardless of where I am.  In some places, people receive a smile more warmly than in others.   Florence wasn’t a place where eye contact and smiles were often reciprocated or even appreciated, especially when the one smiling was an American with a camera.   More often than not, the lips on faces didn’t move and the eyes spoke of suspicion, fear and sometimes, even contempt.  Thankfully, there were exceptions, usually from the older folks, parents carrying children to school on bicycles or immigrants.

After all, appreciation for another human being, regardless of appearance, nationality or cultural background is far more valuable than the tourist euros exchanged on the street.  The warmth and comfort of a sincere smile transcends the barriers allowing friendship and connection. Many are afraid or too busy to engage a stranger with a smile, but some are trusting and realize, regardless of our many differences, we are born of the same Father.

bridge.jpg

Of those strangers on the streets of Florence who did make eye contact and return sincere smiles, several enriching friendships began that sustained me during my semester-long visit to this ancient city.   (I know there are a lot of people here – locals, immigrants and refugees –  who are not so kind, nor should they be blindly trusted.   A few sour encounters with unfriendly folks proved this to be true.  I was continually reminded how the camera is an enemy to those with something to hide.)

For the many who spend their time on the streets, it’s a tough and challenging life.  Most I spoke with are conflicted and homesick.   They are grateful to Italy for opening her arms and providing refuge, but they ache for their home country and families.

(Italy is known for many things – art, history, culture, automobiles, leather, wine, food, fashion – but it should also be known for its benevolence in accepting more than a half million refugees over the past three years, mostly from African countries. Italy has a big heart shown by accepting the burden many others have shunned.)

gambia.jpg

To say this issue is complex and complicated would be a gross understatement.  My heart hurts for the native Italians who have watched the face of their country change so dramatically over the past fifteen years, but also for the strangers, those souls fleeing danger, oppression and seeking a safer and better life.

I, too, was a stranger here, though not without hope of returning home.  Italy allowed me to live in her house and enjoy her beauty and culture, and she was a gracious host.

During the Kent State Florence student and faculty orientation, it was said we may leave Florence but Florence would always be in our hearts.  There was much truth in this prediction.  I will miss many things about Florence and Italy, but perhaps my greatest sadness will be for those people on the street who befriended me, those souls I will likely never see again.

Leaving Florence after more than four months, I want to share with you a few of the immigrant and refugee faces which enriched my life during this wonderful adventure.  These are faces from places like Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal and Romania, mostly Muslim faces.  They are faces belonging to sacrifice and struggle, but also to hope.

I will miss these friends. I pray each finds peace, hope and is able one day to go home.

What love looks like

By David LaBelle

DSC_3715B.JPG

On the streets of Florence, Italy, Akarin and Tharinee Totab make thier way to the train station. ©Photo by David LaBelle

My wife and I were on our way to a favorite coffee shop/bookstore when we spotted a couple shuffling through a small three-way intersection on a narrow cobblestone street in our neighborhood. These ancient streets were most likely created for the feet of Roman horses or wheels of chariots, but are now filled with bicycles, motorcycles, small automobiles and pedestrians trying to navigate quickly without causing harm.  The thing about this couple which caught my eye was the man’s stick signaling he was challenged in the area of sight.

I made a couple of quick shots, just shapes on the wet stone street, then noticed they were pulling suitcases on wheels and seemed lost. The common sign of a new arrival.

Getting lost is not unusual here, but this small yet busy street is no place to stand still or become paralyzed with indecision.  Being able to leap quickly, like a frightened squirrel crossing a busy highway, is essential for a long life here.  When one is blind, as the man appeared to be, peril is compounded.  Even with ears and eyes, it is a daring game of dodgeball on most Florentine streets.

I told my wife to go ahead, I would catch up, which is the norm, since we are both photographers and easily distracted by the things we see and people we meet.  I felt compelled to assist this couple.

Thankfully, with the aid of another person who spoke some English, were able to get the man and woman to their hotel, which wasn’t far away.   But later that night, while walking towards the train station to meet my boys returning from lacrosse practice, I realized I’d neglected to ask their names or even where they were from.  I decided to go to the hotel and leave a note with the desk clerk, asking if he would give it to the couple when he saw them.  I left my email on the note and hoped the woman leading the blind man would write me.  I was curious to know more about them.  The helpful young man at the desk, named Andrea (which is what many young men here are named) said he would give the Asian couple my message if he saw them.  Later that night, as I was walking home with my sons, the young man excitedly popped out of a coffee shop to excitedly tell me he’d passed along my note.

To my joy, the woman, named Tharinee Totab, responded and explained the man with her was her husband, and he was indeed blind.  They were from Bangkok, Thailand, visiting Florence for two days before going to Rome on a brief sightseeing vacation.   “His name is Akarin, but now he is called Champ, because he is a champion,” she shared.

DSC_4713.JPG

Husband and wife

Finding fifty euro on the street could not have made me happier than making this connection.

Tharinee, who prefers to be called Tarn, knew Akarin in college, but hadn’t seen or talked to him in 19 years, until Akarin added her as Facebook friend.  Both into banking, the couple soon started dating.  “I would like to thank Mark Zuckerburg,” Tan says, grinning.

DSC_4740.JPG

Tharinee (Tarn) and Akarin (Champ) before the accident.

Soon the couple fell in love and planned to marry in May of 2013.  But Champ’s parents died, as did Tan’s father.  The couple felt getting married the same year as their parent’s deaths would be inappropriate, a dishonor, so they decided to put off the wedding until 2014.  Then, in June of 2013, Champ was returning home from work when he was involved in terrible wreck. His face was crushed and he lost his eyes and his sense of smell.  His face had to be reconstructed and plastic eyes were set where his real eyes once offered him a window to the world.

“I decided to take care of him and stay beside him,” Tan explains. “We said in our vows, we promised we would love each other no matter what happened. Luckily our family supported our decision, and he became strong after three months of the accident.”

As planned, the couple went ahead and married in 2014.

But the petite, committed 42-year-old admits their marriage has been a lot harder than she ever anticipated.

“Sometimes I am so exhausted, I don’t get much sleep,” she shares.  “I go to work early in the dark and travel one hour to my job and come home and take care of him,” she says, sighing, but not complaining.

DSC_4772.JPG

It was also difficult for Champ in the beginning and he told me he didn’t cope well with his loss of sight.  “At first I did not accept it, but she helped me.”

DSC_4919.JPG

Champ

Enter a captionNow, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.

“He learns to have a normal life from Mahidol University under a free program from our Princess,” Tarn explains.  “Currently, he can use a computer – he is previously a programmer/Information technology manager.  He knows a lot of news that makes me think, is he really blind?”

“Afterwards, we are strong and ready and back to a journey as our love again.”

DSC_4870 2.JPG

Tarn checks on the new departure time of their delayed train.

Now, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.

He smiles and shakes his head.  “No, I trust her.  She leads the way and as long as I can touch her, I am not afraid.”

DSC_4732.JPG

Tarn continually teaches her husband how to navigate the world. © Photo by David LaBelle

“I have to be the eyes all of the time,” Tarn explains. “But because he trusts me, there is no problem.”

“I tell him what I see,” Tarn adds, sensing my confusion.

“She is my audio descriptive,” Champ laughs.

DSC_4786.jpg

The traveling couple on their way to Rome.

His joy and optimism are infectious and humbling.

“I ask Champ if I can take a selfie with him.  He agrees.  Then he smiles wide and says, let me take a picture of you.”

I smile.  I immediately wonder if this is a joke but his wife encourages me to pose with her.

Champ pulls out his cell phone, puts it to his ear, then smiling, aims it accurately in our direction.

DSC_4760.JPG

“Smile,” he says.

He takes one photo, then asks to take another before handing the phone to his wife so she can share the pictures.

image2.JPG

“Unbelievable,” I gasp when I see the well-composed picture he has made. The pictures are perfectly composed.

“Amazing,” I add in disbelief.  “How can he do that.”

“It’s an app he says.  I went to school to learn.”

I embrace the couple as they are finally ready to board their delayed train. Champ feels the beard on my face and smiles.  “Earnest Hemingway,” he laughs.  Tarn looks at him puzzled and has no idea who he is talking about.  They chatter in their native tongue and he explains to her who Earnest Hemingway was.   She lifts her brows and rolls her eyes.  “I told you he is very smart. He reads a lot.”

Just when it seems the whole world is complaining and pessimism fills the news, I meet people like Champ and Tarn who remind me what love and optimism really look like.

Though Champ admits it’s still a challenge to live a normal life, he is a picture of thanksgiving, and says he’s especially thankful for the technology which allows him to do so many things and fills his heart with so much hope.

“Someday I hope to see your face,” he says as we say goodbye and the pair shuffle towards the fast red and gray train that will carry them to Rome.

DSC_4862

As I stood waiting for a long traffic light one my way home, my eyes filled and I breathed deeply to push down climbing tears of gratitude.  What a gift I thought.   Is there a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?

ere a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?

When friends leave us

When friends leave us

It has been a while since my last post and though I’ve felt a dose of writer’s block lately, my wife has encouraged me to keep posting. “But do so with less formality,” she insists. “Loosen up and just write what’s on your heart.”

I know her advice is sound, and so with her words in my ear, I’ll attempt to “loosen up” and post more often, hoping to do so in a more conversational way.

Thankfully, one of the beautiful gifts writing affords is its ability to give shape to our feelings and help us make peace with troubling emotions.  For me writing is a form of prayer that works its way from my heart through my fingers.

So here is what is on my heart at the moment:

Jim1.JPG

Jim Gallagher looks long at the the body of friend and Christian brother Earl Key in 2010. Less than seven years later, Jim would join Earl in death.

 Two friends and Christian brothers, Jim Gallagher and Larry French, left this world late last year and their deaths continue to trouble me, mostly because I know I could have been a better friend to both.

Larry French

larryutah

Larry in his mid twenties.

16640795_10155708504069460_2214043331873912294_n

Larry had broad shoulders, large hands, etched and scarred with deep, dark cracks from years of turning wrenches.  He was a big bear with a soft heart, and someone who could spin a tale with the best, often blurring the facts for the sake of the story.  He was my brother-in-law for many years and early in life we were as close as brothers.  I still remember Larry saying, after helping somebody financially, “I take what I need and give what I can.”  For a mechanic who turned wrenches and drove trucks for a living, this was and remains a profound declaration.  But then Larry Dee always possessed a sort of common man’s junkyard wisdom.

Happy-go-lucky on the surface, Larry laughed easily, much like his father.  But also like his father, cared genuinely for others.  What most never saw were the deep wounds he could never escape or completely hide.   Perhaps the deepest was being separated from his three children after his wife left and took the family away decades ago.  For a man who was all about family, the separation nearly killed him.  Even more tragic is his children never knew him or witnessed the gentle giant when he broke down and wept when away from the eyes of the world.   Thankfully, Larry found love again with Sherry, which made his road through life less painful.

I didn’t realize I would miss Larry as much as I do, I guess because we were not as close the past 20 years as we once were.  That was my fault more than his, and it saddens me I didn’t to make more of an attempt to reconcile earlier.  We did draw closer last year when Larry approached me and we apologized to each other.  For that encounter I am forever grateful.

Jim Gallagher

jim2

Jim in 2010

I was drawn to Jim Gallagher the first day I met him, the way one feels compassion for a stray or rescued animal, kicked around by life and wearing the scars of too many bad decisions.  He tried to project a tough guy from Philly facade, but all one had to do is listen to him pray to know the tender heart of the invisible person.  Jim, like most of us, had his demons.  One was alcohol, the one that eventually took his life.  On the surface, he seemed able to hold this enemy at bay until his wife, Patty, a sweet, sweet woman with an infectious laugh, died rather suddenly.

patty

Patty

 

 

She was his joy, his strength, and partner in both fighting his addiction (they met in AA) and in his walk of Christian faith.   Jim’s life spiraled immediately after Patty died and within six months his life was also over.

 

I failed Jim.  I had intended on several occasions to call him after Patty’s death, but didn’t. Sure, I wrote facebook posts, but such are poor and impersonal substitutes for a phone call or a letter.  I even wrote myself a reminder on a notebook I was using during a Bible class and circled it, yet still allowed the distractions of the week to keep me from calling Jim…until it was too late.

Both Larry and Jim experienced much joy in this life, but sorrow was never far away.

None of us truly or completely know what’s on the other side of this life.   Are Larry, Jim and Patty finally at peace?   Will I see them again?  Only our Creator knows.  But for now, I miss them and wish I could wrap my arms around each and tell them again how much I love and appreciate them and ask their forgiveness for not being a better friend.

But I suspect they know that.

Blessings of second chances

by David LaBelle

About a year ago, I met Dave Agard in a writing circle, made up mostly of military veterans.

From the first meeting, I enjoyed Dave’s thoughtful and often humorous way with words and his tender heart, a heart he guards with a sober outer shell.

A few months ago Dave shared a story he’d written about a man named Mike, one of his employees with a prison record and Chron’s disease. (Dave is co-owner and general manager of Progress Wire Products Company in Cleveland, Ohio.)  His story moved me, as I am sure it did others in the “Circle.”

DSC_9648A.JPG

Dave Agard

I asked Dave if I could share what he had written, then asked if he would connect me with Mike.   (Dave’s story is at the end of this post.)

Mike Rochelle

Mike Rochelle, 40, spent three years in prison for being an accessory to murder.  He was hired by Dave Argard a year and a half later, and has worked for Dave just shy of 9 years.  He talked openly about past mistakes, what it means to have someone believe in him and the gift of a second chance.

DSC_9593A.JPG

Mike Rochelle

“Dave is probably the most reasonable man I have ever met, as far as a boss is concerned,” Mike assures.  “He understands I have health problems, fine.  He doesn’t have a problem with me as long as I take care of myself.  If I get sick, I let him know what is going on.  I get sick every now and then and have to go to the hospital.  Other bosses, if I get sick, I get laid off. I come here and do my best.”

“He tries to help everybody,” he added. “It bothers me that some of my co-workers try to take advantage of that.”

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 25, Mike married Shannon, also 40, after she proposed to him.

Life is not easy since both suffer from medical conditions – he has Chron’s and she is blind, able to see only shadows.   Shannon says she has a disease called neurofibromatosis where tumors press against the optic nerve, causing blindness. In spite of the blindness, she is a picture of thanksgiving and contentment. Even after fifteen years of marriage the couple seems giddy in love.

dsc_2185a

Shannon and Mike

Though thankful for his job, Mike is driven to become a leader and hopes someday to lead the group of welders.

He rises early and rides his bicycle two miles from his home through the morning darkness to start work by 7 a.m.

“I am trying to become somebody more important here… move up in levels, take on more responsibility.”

DSC_2115cA.JPG

DSC_2140A.JPG“Now I am here and Dave is glad I am here,” he assures, his eyes widening behind his safety glasses at his welding work station.

“That’s it, that’s what I am trying to achieve now.  One step at time.  I don’t want to be a pawn on a chess board, he offers, work gloves still on.  I want to actually move up and do something with myself.  Here.  This is the only work I know.  This is my career.  I have been doing this for 20 years.  I am trying to the best I can right here.”

“Nobody wants to come to work and be a pawn on a chessboard the rest of their life,” Mike repeats.

DSC_9605A.JPG

Dave and Mike at work

When I asked Dave, a Vietnam veteran, husband and father, if he could tell me in a sentence why he gives ex-convicts like Mike or those with troubled pasts a second chance, offering them jobs when others shy away from helping, he paused for a long, silent minute, then answered, “I can’t.  It’s just the way I am.”

dsc_9650a

Later he summed it up when he said, “As a young man, I made many poor choices.  I was fortunate that the consequences of my actions were never as severe as they could have been or should have been. I see this as a blessing and like to help people who made poor choices and received life changing consequences.

Following is the piece Dave shared with the writing Circle:

Just Say His Name

Our office manager, Jeanne, gave me an application and said the guy in the lobby was willing to wait for an interview. The handwriting was barely legible chicken scratch. This is common today as handwriting is not important. I took a quick review of the application. His name was Mike Rochelle. I said his name   then chuckled to myself. I noticed he worked at one of our competitors so he did have some kind of experience working with steel wire. I also noticed he had not worked anywhere in the past three years. We needed people so I thought I’d talk with him. Jeanne brought Mike back to my office. He walked big with shoulders back, erect, and a spring in his step. Bigger than his 5’-11” 135 lb body which looked to be just a couple pounds heavier than an Auschwitz  prisoner.   He had jet black hair, narrow face with sharp pointy features, dark brown eyes with no distinguishable pupils, and prison tattoos on his arms.

My method of interviewing is simple and safe. I ask open-ended questions…Tell me about all the places you have worked. Why did you leave the last place you worked? Tell me about your education and skills. What’s your interests?  For the most part, people like to talk about themselves if someone asks …if someone will listen. Some of the things they won’t talk about are discovered when we get the results of the pre- employment drug test.

Mike talked. I don’t know if you call it a stutter or he just repeated words but he had an excited voice. And, most sentences ended in ya’ know. Example: ‘I,I did have a job at Asset Wire so I, so I know how to use most of the, most of the equipment. Ya know’.   He hasn’t had a job in the past three years because he was in the ‘joint’ as he called it. Here is why. When he was twenty-one, he shared the downstairs of a two family house with two other guys and a girl. Mike described her as a ‘great big fat girl’. The owner of the house lived upstairs. An old alcoholic that had cash. One of the guys and the fat girl went upstairs when the old man was passed out drunk. They put a pillow on his head and she sat on the pillow till he was gone… along with his money. They left him up there to be discovered by a family member a couple days later. The coroner ruled he died of natural causes. He was cremated then disseminated. Three years later the fat girl found Jesus. He told her to confess. She did and implicated all who were in the house. Mike was charged with murder II. His public defender talked him into a plea deal. Man II. He was young and scared so he took the deal. Swears he did not participate and claims he was only guilty of not telling the cops about what happened. I don’t know.

Mike talked about his interests. He always wanted to be a soldier. When he was eighteen he signed up but was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Maybe that is why he looks like he needed a sandwich. Claimed he was a roman soldier in another life. Who knows.

He went on to say he would be a loyal, hard worker if given a chance. I did hire Mike and he has lived up to his promise. Over the past nine years, I got to know Mike much better. He only knows his last foster mother and has no brothers, sisters or relatives he knows of.  He got some broken ribs in a prison fight because he would not submit. The only person in his life is his wife Shannon who is blind. He lost his driver’s license years ago so he rides his bike three miles to and from work every day.  Periodically, his Crohn’s acts up and he’s in the hospital. I think he enjoys the stay as he gets some attention.

His only interest, other than work, is the Roman Military and their battles.  He is a walking text book. He tells me how many men were killed in each battle and the names of the generals. He especially likes to tell me how the Roman army developed the strategy to defeat the mighty Phalanx.  How they used the flexibility of the gladius against the long spears. Sticking the groin area not protected by armor then the enemy would bleed out.  He would demonstrate the ‘sticking’ motion as if he was there fighting in the battle. Maybe he was.

Walking through the shop yesterday, doing my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to Mike. “Morning Mike. How’s my small crustacean friend this morning?”  He gives me a big toothless grin. He loves this term of endearment. Something special. One of the few things that is just for him. Now, say his name out loud with me…Mike Rochelle. As you go about your life keep an eye out for sea shells – crustaceans. You’ll see them on bathroom wall paper, in glass jars in children’s rooms, and on the beach.   When you see one, think of Mike Rochelle. As now, we are the keepers of his story.

DA

dsc_9643a

Pining for the past: film vs digital

by David LaBelle

I think most of us pine for something from our past – people, a car we loved, a pet or even a former self.

Sometimes, we don’t even know what we miss because our lives are so busy, then something triggers a memory, carrying us back through the decades.

bw sink.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

Last week a reporter for the New York Times contacted me asking if I had photos from 35 years ago for a story he was working on.  I found the 8×10 boxes holding the prints but years of humidity had glued most of them together.  Hoping to separate and save as many prints as possible, I soaked them in the kitchen sink, then dried them in the tiny, warm closet that houses our water heater.

Wow, did the scene bring black a flood of memories.

As I looked at the rich tones of the submerged black and white prints and felt the emulsion and the water over my hands, the process carried me back to a lost time.

I realized how much I loved black and white film photography, especially the process of shooting, developing and printing.  And I missed me, the documentary photographer, whose film camera felt as natural in hand as a baseball.

me at sink.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

I never imagined I would ever quit shooting film or making prints.  Yet, sadly, it has been at least 20 years since I last made a print in a darkroom.

A lot of photographers today write about how superior digital is to film, usually citing how much faster and easier it is. No more nasty chemicals or waiting for results, they assure. There are even filters that add grain to create the look of film for those who want it.

There is no debate that digital has transformed photography and made it easier, less expensive, likely safer without the chemicals, and more accessible to the average person.  With it we enjoy amazing benefits – especially speed in capturing, transmitting and reproducing images, and therefore, as a news tool, digital photography is unequalled.   And the higher ISO’s that allow us to see and capture in the dark like nocturnal creatures makes me jealous. I wish I would have had those when I was a daily news photographer.

But digital can never replace the experience film provided any more than microwaved food can replace the aromas, sounds and communion of preparing a slow-cooked meal.

As with most technological gains, something valuable is lost.

In this case, I feel we have compromised quality time.

Like riding a gas-powered vehicle while cutting the grass instead of huffing and puffing behind a push mower, you can cut the lawn a lot quicker and with less effort.  But what is gained in time and ease, is lost in physical activity and connection to the earth.

Similarly, driving or riding in a car is different than walking or riding on the back of a horse. An automobile is faster, but what is gained in speed is lost in connection to our environment.  The horse connects two living beings with earth and sky, while the automobile separates and insulates us from both.

As we have progressed, we have also lost so many sensual experiences.

The computer is another “artificial” layer between me and my images.  With a film camera I feel a closer connection to both the beginning and end of the creation – the photograph.

And I miss the darkroom – the process of developing and printing, of being a craftsman and trying to create in a print representing what I felt when I pressed the shutter.  And being alone in the darkroom with my thoughts or maybe a radio or tape player was soothing and calming, the opposite of sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, which drains my energy and hurts my eyes.  I realize now the process of developing film and making prints gave me much-needed time to process what I had just witnessed and photographed.  The images, once they appeared, helped shape and even clarify what I was feeling.

I miss the sound of the shutter opening and closing and the reassuring, familiar whirring of film being pulled from a cassette across the film plane.

I also miss the strategy of composing, figuring exposure and making images in 36 frames, trying to process, print and even transmit on deadline.

I even miss the smell of film.

hanging prints.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

But what I miss most – which ironically is what we tried to gain with digital photography – is quality time, that wonder-filled “latent’ space between the pressing of the shutter release and the birth of the negative or print.  Within that valuable, magical latent time hope is grown and dreams imagined.   In our world of instant gratification, which digital continues to feed, we have traded this deep, valuable experience for the “immediate” image.

I love what digital can do but would gladly trade the speed and convenience of today’s photography for the craftsmanship, community and pace of the past.

But I recognize there is a place for both.