It is raining. I had a photo shoot planned for this morning (new pix for my new book) but due to weather the photographer and I have had to cancel and reschedule for next week.
I once gave a workshop at a homeless shelter. For promotional material I sent in the only picture I had, one of me with long dark hair, not a hint of gray. When I showed up for the workshop a man looked at me with my short silvering hair and said, “That’s not her.” Another time I went to a famous poet’s reading and was shocked at how different she looked from her book-jacket photo. Those two experiences taught me to update my photos, and age gracefully if I can manage it. There is a lesson here about updating my attitude towards writing as well.
The truth is, except for the aches and pains, I like growing older. I’m a lot more relaxed about things, and this extends to my writing life, to my feelings about my current lot in life, to the fact that I haven’t won the prizes, or the grants, or the accolades I so wanted in the early days. Indeed I wanted them so badly I thought I actually needed them to carry on, and too many times I quit.
But the word accolade, besides meaning an award also means this: “a touch of a person’s shoulders with a sword at the bestowing of knighthood.”
I feel this last meaning now. I feel the touch of a new story on my shoulders. Like the light touch of a sword in being knighted, it’s gentle and does not hurt, but I know, and the knight knows, rougher roads are ahead. I accept.
Once I decided to have faith, I knew that something would pique my interest. The next story has found me. It happened in reading a book (Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan) about Edward Curtis, the photographer and self-educated anthropologist whose life work was to record pictures of American Indians in traditional dress and settings, and to record their languages, rituals, songs, dance and culture before it all disappeared.
For this work he was paid nothing. He died without a penny. He went through incredible financial hardship. His work was applauded at times, and dismissed at times, but he believed in, and was possessed by, his vision. When he first began this work it was illegal for Native Americans to practice their religions, or to dress in traditional garb. He went against the law. He went against everything except what he knew he had to do.
Since his death his work has been revived, and revered, but more importantly it has been used by the tribes themselves to reconstruct their traditions. Without Edward Curtis’s doggedness, his willingness to work without pay, and without accolades, much of the Native American culture would be lost. He was the only person to reconstruct the Battle of Little Bighorn with eyewitnesses. He was the first to conclude that Custer had seriously screwed up, and had in fact not intervened in the slaughter of Reno’s men when he very well could have. Needless to say Curtis’s conclusions regarding the battle and Custer were not welcomed, but years later his papers and maps were studied to give us the knowledge we have today about what happened on the banks of the Little Bighorn that June day of 1876. Curtis never knew what his work would mean for future historians. He only knew what he felt and had to do. I do not compare myself to Edward Curtis, or the scale of my work to his, but his life story has made me think.
I don’t know what will become of my work. I don’t know if my work will receive the kind of attention I long for in this life time, or if it will be remembered after I am dead. I know only that I must do it. It’s a relief to know that, and to accept it, and to do the work regardless of its public reception. We work in darkness and live in light. Is there any other way? And would we want there to be?