Learning how to see

I found myself rather choked up recently listening to an NPR profile of a new book—Dorthea Lange:  Drawing Beauty out of Desolation.  The strange thing was that I was moved by the story of an artist who made a difference for all our collective children… at the expense of her own children.

Something about the angst, the drive, the ambition, the woundedness struck me as more deeply human than might a story of a more conventionally “good” mother.  I have often been struck by the pain of parents who were unable to optimally care for their children, sometimes due to psychosis, sometimes to economics, perhaps even from narcissism… yet I have always glimpsed the anguish peeking out from the nearly drawn shutters of the psyche.

So, as we make our week toward Mother’s Day, I thought we needed a nod to the spirit of those less than perfect Moms (many of whom just might be our moms) and a widening of consciousness for those forces that twist and shape us all—sometimes in ways that might not be so easy to understand, nor so wise to judge.

Her own dad abandoned Lange during the depression of 1907; she also had polio when she was seven, leaving her right leg withered and her foot twisted.  When she was offered the chance to photograph America for the Farm Security Administration, the assignment to document conditions plaguing America in the Great Depression, she knew that it was the chance of a lifetime, a chance to make a real difference.

Lange, however, had to put her kids in the equivalent of foster care—a wound for which her own kids remained bitter (understandably).  As a psychologist I found myself wondering about themes like the collective good vs. the good of the individual, as well as the repetition compulsion that may have unconsciously driven her to “abandon” her children as a defense against facing the vulnerability, hurt and rejection of her own childhood.  Could illness and deformity have driven her to need to achieve in compensation for underlying feelings of insecurity or inadequacy?  And did she find some ragged remnant of herself in the poor kids, the bread-line guys, the Grapes of Wrath nursing mothers?

Lange said that a camera was a tool that helped us see without a camera.  She seemed to do more than document social conditions, she helped us as a nation see the effects of our stock bubbles, of our Gatsby roars that end not with a bang but with a whimper… how relevant her vision seems today.  How much it reminds me of our general ignorance and denial of our collective children who go without, who suffer at the bleak and real ends of a capitalism of shiny thievery.  How invisible are the many thousands of kids living in emotional and material deprivation—and that’s just in the U.S.

Maybe she wasn’t the best mom to her kids, and I hope that her children can find the love in this world to heal from that, but perhaps Dorthea Lange was still quite a “parent,” nonetheless—caring for all our collective children by actually seeing them, and by imploring us through the rippling lesson of looking that we too must not turn away, that we must see and then respond.

Lange rarely photographed herself, but when teaching photography in the 1950’s she had an assignment where students had to photograph “where they lived, something profound about what their lives really were about.”  Then one year her students challenged her to do her own assignment.  What she brought in was a photograph of her twisted foot.

Maybe that’s an interesting blog challenge—to write and/or photograph the existential essence of where it is that we truly live.  Many fellow bloggers have done interesting explorations of the contents of their bags in recent months… I wonder where it goes if we challenge ourselves to see yet more deeply and individually.  It has been said that if we go deeply enough into the personal we reach the universal, and that suggests that if we all find the courage to explore inward, but with an eye to the group, we will find both our truest selves and at the same time true community.  As Rumi says, “out beyond right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.”

Namaste, Bruce

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4 Responses to “Learning how to see”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    Bruce,
    This is so beautiful. I adore this: “I have always glimpsed the anguish peeking out from the nearly drawn shutters of the psyche.” – and it is one of the things I love most about your writing, your commenting, your very presence, as I feel it: you are so open to peoples’ humanity and are truly able to meet people out in Rumi’s field. What a blessing it is to know someone like that – thank you.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Thank you for your kind words—I see this same sensitivity to the numinous and the textured in your writing as well. After all, Lindsey, isn’t this bloggy world a field, or at least a meadow in Rumi’s filed, where we meet, talk and participate in, hopefully, the sort of seeing that brings us more fully to life?

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I have always admired Lange’s work, but did not know about her own life. A beautiful post, and one which gives us much to think about. I cannot help but think of my own mother – her psychological failure to thrive, her failure to nourish her own children (in key ways), and yet to provide gifts in other ways. Including, late in life, to children who suffered. Perhaps in some way, she was finally feeding herself through that effort.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Complex questions, just in time for Mother’s Day. While I’m so often left scratching my head about such things, I love to be connected in the questions.

      Based on the love you obviously bring to your kids, friends and readers, the spirit of your mom might trot out the old tack of “I must have done something right.” Yet if soul is made in suffering, maybe it took your mom until after you were grown to get to the point where she would see soul and redemption in the care of others, perhaps even trying to compensate for the missing pieces of her own childhood, and the even more poignant loss of the chance to have parented you in a more engaged and nurturing manner.

      Parenting is so often about giving what we didn’t get, so in honor of Mother’s Day a merci to you for doing just that.

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