A few months ago, I got a text from a good friend. She was out with a big group of photographers and one of them, out of the blue, brought up my name. "Michelle's just SO deep," this other photographer lamented. "She's so poetic and emotional about everything. It's like, enough already!"
I don't know why, but her criticism knocked me off my balance.
What if I was too deep? What if I was too emotionally invested in my photography and writing?
The truth is, I'm doing it all the time. Thinking deeply. Questioning intently. Tracing the outline of moments and memories with my mind, the way a lover might outline the silhouette of skin with his fingertip. It just never occurred to me that a person can be too much of that.
So I silenced myself. I stopped sharing heart-soaked imagery of my children. I stopped writing. Not really by choice, but because somewhere, there was a part of me that wanted to feel safe.
Then one morning in Mississippi, I went for a super early walk. The fog was blanketing the water and the midnight chill was still biting my bare feet when a voice behind me asked if he could sit with me. I was alone, on top of a picnic table, and the entire beach was wide open and empty. Clearly this elderly man wanted company, so of course I said yes.
"Only the deep thinkers look out at the water at sunrise," he said.
"Come on. Really?!" I thought. "Even completely silent and within two seconds, this total stranger is going to call me out?"
I didn't say anything. Just tried to smile . I think he could see by my forced expression that I didn't take it as a compliment.
"My wife used to always wake up before the world. She was such a romantic. Completely in love with being alive. That's all I meant. It's the people who really feel what it is to be alive, I suppose, who do this kind of thing."
For no reason, other than why not, I told him everything. He sat on the edge of the bench, one hand holding the end of his cane. His wedding ring had grown into the thick folds of his wrinkly knuckles, the way tree bark grows around objects long left in their creases. He never looked at me, only squinted off in the distance. Once in a while he would nod and close his eyes.
Eventually I was done. I had said all that could be said. And he turned to face me and said, his southern accent making it sound like a song, "Listen young lady. I'm going to be real straight with you. You are being ridiculous." He was dead serious. "You were born a poet, just like my wife was, only thing is, she didn't give a damn. MmmHmm. In this life, I don't care what you are born as, it's your job to go and be that, and stop giving a damn."
He turned back to the lake.
"Fuck 'em," he said. "Excuse my French."
He laughed, and I could tell he was laughing with her.
I won't lie and say in that very instant I ran up to my camper writing for hours and hours, papers flying around my head like giant confetti. It wasn't that. But. When Wolftree Magazine (a website and publication that I totally believe in and LOVE) reached out and asked me to write a piece for Volume 3, I didn't say no.
Little by little, I'm sharing with abandon again. And while I wish I could give all credit to the straight-shooting man from Mississippi, it was actually the ghost of his wife who shook me awake.
She was sitting beside him the whole time, invisible but unquestionably visceral. As they laughed together, I wondered about the first time he danced with her. Were they alone in a dusty apartment, a record spinning in the corner? Or were they in the middle of a crowded southern bar, a band playing too loud, everyone's mouths smelling like alcohol when they sang along... But more than that, I wondered how she died, and if, when she took her last breath, there were words locked in her throat. Songs that she was too afraid to sing, that died along with her.
To me, that must be the single greatest tragedy of them all.
And so, fuck 'em, I will write.
These tearsheet images courtesy of Wolftree.