A blueprint for an ordinary life.

As promised, now all in one (long) post. The individual posts will magically disappear in a week or so. There will be a few other changes here, too, as I get started on year 11. Recipes, notes on cooking, and maybe even a few more ridiculous video tutorials are on the way, soon. Thanks to all who’ve followed along, here and there, for the last decade.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. Sir John Herschel. April 1867, albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image is in the public domain and used without restriction.

In 1842 Sir John Herschel, a 50-year-old polymath (astronomer, scientist, chemist, and mathematician), invented an inexpensive and reliable process for reproducing mathematical tables. Mixing equal parts of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate (both in a simple water solution), Herschel found that the formula was sensitive to UV light. Instead of laboriously hand-copying the complex texts he was miraculously able to reproduce them by coating paper in the light-sensitive chemical mix, using his original table (written on a semi-transparent sheet of paper) as a contact printing negative, exposing the image in direct sunlight, and then simultaneously developing and fixing the image in plain running water.

The resulting image, a perfect, permanent copy of the original, appeared as white writing on a deep blue background and was described as a “blueprint.”

Architects, who also sought quicker, easier, and less expensive methods for reproducing architectural drawings, quickly adopted Herschel’s discovery, and the name “blueprint” stuck.

Herschel’s friend Anna Atkins, a botanist, applied the discovery in a different way, creating and self-publishing the first known book of photographic prints, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions” in October 1843.

Atkins, Anna. Himanthalia lorea. 1843, cyanotype on paper, from the hand-printed book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. New York Public Library, New York. Image is in the public domain and used without restriction.

Side note: To purists, Atkins’s works are photograms (photographic processes without a camera), not photographs (camera-based imagery).

The term “blueprint,” then, covers a range of industry and enterprise: science, illustration, documentation, and creative expression. So ingrained is the term that it is now both literal and metaphorical. A blueprint might be a set of physical documents for a physical building project, but it also might reference a mental model or conceptual framework for an idea, philosophy, or doctrine.

For those of us who make them, and who teach the process of making them, blueprints by any of the various names – sun print, cyanotype – are nothing short of magical. It is wondrous indeed, watching the coated paper change from light greenish-yellow to blue then gray during exposure, through the range of deep blues that appear during water development, and finally to the deep, permanent Prussian blue.

The cyanotype process is my favorite way of teaching photographic printing. It’s guaranteed to hook interest because it delivers almost immediate gratification, whether the image produced is a fern leaf photogram or a realistic image printed from a photographic negative.

Though it fell out of vogue in 19th-century photographic circles (too blue, too cheap, overly simplistic), the cyanotype process endured and has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts. Analog in the extreme, blueprints have an almost cultish following in spite of, or perhaps because of, the ever more digital world.

Every time I make a cyanotype print, I think of Sir John Herschel and how pleased he must have been with himself, extracting the extraordinary from the ordinary, at ripe the age of 50.

Sitting in my kitchen, a decade ago, wearing an orange tank top and watching my 25th college reunion festivities on Facebook, I started a blog, kind of by accident.

What I had decided to do, without giving it much thought, was to replace an outdated website I’d created five years earlier, when I briefly returned to independent consulting, before the 2008 crisis sent me back to the 9-to-5 working world.

Unlike that old, static site, this new blog would be a place to post creative work on a continual, if irregular, basis. It would be easy, I thought, and uncomplicated, this new photo blog.

Only I had to write, too, just a little, to give some context and shape to things, a wall to hang the art on, so to speak. Having written ad copy and white papers and the like for decades by that point, I didn’t give the writing too much thought either.

I published a few warm-up posts — little snippets of copy paired with funky Hipstamatic shots.

Then, on the Saturday of my reunion (or “Reunion,” in Princeton style), I wrote this:

25 years ago today (ish) I graduated from Princeton University with a degree in visual art (photography) surrounded by the expectation that I would do extraordinary things. Our reunion weekend began yesterday, and I am content to be reading about it on Facebook from the comfort of my perfectly ordinary Memphis, TN kitchen, reflecting on 25 years of perfectly ordinary life. I haven’t published a book, summited Mount Everest, started a Fortune 100 company, or been featured in any national (or international) publication. I applaud all of my classmates who have, and I wish them the happiness of enough, whatever enough may be for each of us. I have learned more in the last quarter-century than in the 20-something years preceding it. I’ve learned that, for me, the joy of photography is complete in itself. The wonder of family and friends outside of the Ivy League is humbling. The delight hidden in the seemingly unremarkable is never to be undervalued. May the next 25 years be the same.

June 2012

What would it be about, this new blog, after that impetuous start? I had no idea. When I called it a lark I wasn’t kidding. It was something fun to play with, a pet project.

My children were eight and 10 at the time, and life outside of work was a circus of cooking, cleaning, homework, carpooling, and a revolving schedule of child-focused activities that changed with the seasons.

It quickly followed, in those early days of writing and posting, that the blog would include things that connected with my real life as a mother.

As a mother and wife.

As a mother, wife, and friend.

As a mother, wife, friend, artist, cook, creative strategist, corporate marketing professional, and writer.

And teacher.

Yes, the blog would cover all of those things, in time.

And while exploring those various topics, I thought, I would weave the thread of a simple idea that there is great beauty in the ordinary parts of everyday life. In the garden spiders and fabric scraps. In the way light changes at the turn of seasons.

I didn’t have a content calendar for this new blog, though I knew well what that was. I followed the WordPress feeds, jotted down tips from the various folks at Automattic. It occurred to me that I could have a food blog, so I followed a dozen of those. It occurred to me that I could actually have a photo blog, so I followed a dozen of those, too.

Thanks to friends, Facebook, and the burgeoning explosion of bots, I built a not-embarrassing follower base in the first year. The encouragement was enough of a nudge to get me thinking a bit more about structure and templates. I would write 300-word posts, every other day. No, daily. No, weekly. About recipes. But only on Saturdays. On Tuesdays, I would write about art. But only 300 words about art, along with a featured photograph. No, one post would be just an image, then two others would be writing.

Yes, that was it. Saturday posts would be short musings, followed by writing about what I was planning to cook for the week. Tuesday posts would be longer essays – but not too much longer. And intermittently, I would throw in a few single-image posts, just to liven up the page.

I was busy working, and mothering, and cooking, and trying to keep up with life in general, so I had to wedge in this extra activity like some crazy Tetris game. I wrote about my children and my neighbors, about the world’s largest tree house (since closed to the pubic) and, of course, about cooking.

And then one day, a year later, I woke up and wrote about my mother.

I learned to make cyanotype prints in the basement of an elementary school that had been converted into a multi-purpose facility that housed Princeton’s fledgling creative program offerings, which included visual arts, creative writing, dance, and film. The various programs, which were concentration areas within other departmental majors, predated the 1984 building renovation that added a new theater, updated office space, and dedicated gallery space.

I was present for that entire renovation, from spring 1983 to spring 1987, but I was too close and too young to see the larger significance of it. I also loved the quirky, dilapidated, unconventional vibe of that building and its sharp contrast to the rest of the campus.

On the building’s first floor I learned to use a table saw and stretch canvas, to etch printing plates, and set type. I also learned basic administrative skills from my work-study job in the program office. There were other offices, classrooms, and performance spaces on the first floor as well, and the parade of celebrity teachers and lecturers – Joyce Carol Oates, John McPhee, Paul Auster, and Toni Morrison among them – was staggering.

On the second floor, I practiced painting and drawing in studio classes that were led by emerging artists who commuted from New York. The most outlandish of these visiting teachers was the painter Sidney Guberman, a friend of Frank Stella’s (Princeton ’58). Guberman and I exchanged letters, and art, by mail for a little while during and after his tenure. Looking at those letters several years ago I was shocked to the point of laughter by the hints and innuendos to which I’d been completely oblivious at the time.

The third floor was studio space, and each of us who concentrated in visual arts had a converted classroom as studio space, sharing studios in pairs our junior year, each having our own for senior year so we could produce our thesis projects.

The darkrooms, one for film development and another for printing, were in the basement, as was the ceramics studio. Our photography classes met around a small table in a corner toward the front of the building. There were 10 students, give or take, in my introductory class, in the spring of 1984. Some were taking the class to satisfy a requirement; others came in with existing proficiency. What they wanted was a chance to study with Emmet Gowin, the photographer whose fame, at that time, was connected to images of Mount St. Helens that he shot, as he put it, by accident.

Emmet’s earlier work, intimate portraits of his wife and family, had been published in a 1976 book titled, cleverly, “Emmet Gowin: Photographs.” The experience of photographing St. Helens, a happy accident, led to a new area of visual exploration, guided by nothing more than his intense curiosity and innate understanding of fleeting time.

I came into the class with neither proficiency nor fan status. I owned an Olympus 35mm camera, a gift from my father on my 16th birthday, two books of Eugene Atget’s work, and an iconic, if trite, Ansel Adams poster. That was the extent of my photographic “knowledge.”

Walking into that basement for the first time, I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension. Curiosity was (is) an area of strength for me, but discipline was (is) not. I was deeply interested in creative exploration but lacked confidence that I could master the technical precision of photography. This same apprehension kept me out of the architecture building, one of the very few regrets I have about my college experience.

In our first semester of study with Emmet, we learned the technical particulars of photography — aperture and ISO, chemistry, and temperature. We learned, among other things, the difference between chlorobromide papers (Agfa Portriga Rapid was our go-to), which were coated with a mix of silver chloride and silver bromide, and silver chloride papers (Ilford Multigrade was, likewise, the go-to).

Emmet was an Agfa Portriga guy at the time, experimenting with split-toning using selenium toner. What was good enough for Emmet was good enough for me. I blew through boxes of paper and cases of film. Sometimes, in my enthusiasm, I neglected to position the paper properly in the enlarger frame. As a result, some of the best images (meaning the ones with the right image composition, right exposure) were crooked on the paper, documenting an imbalance between creative expression and technical precision that endures to this day.

Having mastered the basics in the first semester, we explored less conventional (at the time) areas in our second semester. We learned to use view cameras and sheet film, to make enlarged negatives from 35mm, and to produce contact prints in which the negative and light-sensitive paper, sandwiched between glass, bypassed the enlarger.

In exploring contact printing, we explored “alternative” printing methods, as the earliest forms of photographic printing had become labeled. Our guidebook was William Crawford’s “The Keepers of Light,” of which I still have both hardback and paperback copies. We made platinum and palladium prints, marveling at the fine detail and ethereal quality of the final images. Having one foot in the painting world and my other in the photo lab, I became enamored with gum bichromate printing, which was the original method for making color prints by coating, and exposing, photo-sensitive layers that were tinted with watercolor (blue, yellow, magenta) and finished with a coat of silver or platinum for the detail and shadow.

It was almost impossible to get accurate registration in the layers, so the final images were alternately blurred and dreamy. Producing a full-color gum print was laborious and had a low success rate, so I experimented instead with a single layer, single pigment process. The resulting images looked like watercolor photographs, often printed on taupe-colored Rives BFK paper.

But my favorite discovery, in this exploration of “alternative” methods, was deep Prussian blue of cyanotype.

Bamboo and Sundrops. Cyanotype triptych hand-sewn onto rice paper. 2020.

A question I’m learning to ask, and answer, is this one:

What comes up for you when you hear (see, think about, reflect on) that?

I like this question for many reasons, among them that it’s a photographer’s question at heart. I think of a latent image appearing on paper after exposure, during development, of how the image becomes visible in stages, first as dark outlines and shadows, then eventually in fine detail.

It’s an ideal question to use when giving feedback or sharing an observation. Unlike the somewhat confrontational, “How do you feel about that?” it offers safety in the range of acceptable responses. “What comes up for you when you hear that” can as easily be answered with a dismissive acknowledgment (“Not much…”) as with a deeper reflection and response.

And that’s the question, “what comes up for me,” that I’ve been asking myself as I watch my daughter prepare for college and reflect on my own college experience. The quick answer is an expected set of feelings, including – of course – nostalgia.

But I am discovering a deeper truth, too, as I think not only about myself heading to college, but also about what my mother felt and experienced during my college years and when I chose the path of photography and visual art as a course of study.

I remember the expression on my mother’s face when I showed her Emmet Gowin’s first monograph, which I’d checked out from the local library when I came home for Christmas break during my sophomore year of college. I’d just completed his introduction to photography class, and I was hooked. I wanted to learn everything, to absorb the entirety of the world that had just opened up to me. And I was mesmerized by Emmet’s early work, which felt acutely familiar to me.

My mother was impressed by Emmet’s credentials, but his work, I could see, disturbed her. His portraits of Edith’s family, his depiction of rural Virginia farm life, elicited unsettling memories that she’d just as soon have forgotten, memories of things she didn’t want getting in my way.

My mother intended to raise extraordinary children. Although she was more competitive than she acknowledged, her desire to nurture greatness was rooted not in out-doing her peers in motherhood but rather in an urgent need to give her children things she did not have in her own childhood.

The eldest daughter of a country lawyer’s daughter and a mechanic-turned-evangelist preacher (who scandalously eloped to marry), my mother fought tooth and nail to break free from the constraints of provincialism that characterized much of her upbringing. In raising my sister and me, she attempted to, in current terms, “re-parent” herself. She exposed us to music, art, literature and nature in the same ways she had been exposed to such things during the best years of her upbringing. She limited our exposure to things she deemed limiting, including, in some ways, her own parents.

We visited on holidays, of course, and I once spent two weeks of summer vacation on my grandparents’ farm. But the time we spent with my mother’s family was small, relative to the time spent with my father’s clan. What seemed clear to me, even when I was young, was that she loved her family but she guarded herself when she was with some of them, and she was never fully herself when we visited their farm.

Nankipoo, Tennessee, 1986. Silver gelatin print, 10×10 inches. Image shot with a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera.

She was ashamed of poverty, irritated by what she saw as willful ignorance, and worried about the general state of their living conditions — the abandoned cars and trucks, the coyotes, the increasing rigidity of their religious fervor. She was fearfully uncomfortable with the vengeful God and the selective Jesus, with the Confederate flags and racist language. And, of course, the guns.

At the same time, she loved her family. She loved the music and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some books and mementos. She loved the Queen Anne’s Lace and ditch lilies, the pecans and fresh eggs. She loved peach cobbler, and well water, and hand-washing dishes after supper.

Most of all, I think, she felt sadness and disappointment for what could have been that wasn’t. My grandfather was a brilliant “maker,” in today’s vernacular, and a natural farmer. He could fix anything mechanical on sight. He made musical instruments from unconventional materials and could play by ear.

“He had so much potential,” my mother often said. “He could have done so many extraordinary things.”

Nankipoo, Tennessee, 1986. Selenium toned silver gelatin print, 6×6 inches. Image shot with a Diana camera.

Brady, Mathew (or follower). Colors of the 23rd New York Infantry, c. 1860-1865. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brady-photos

The images that might come to mind when you hear the names Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln are the works of 19th-century portrait photographer Mathew Brady. It is Brady’s image of Lincoln on the U.S. $5 bill.

Considered the father of photojournalism, Brady is perhaps best known for his photographs documenting the American Civil War., the first war to be recorded and viewed not just in realistic detail but in real time. The entire body of Civil War work was attributed solely to Brady until the 1960s/70s, but most of the images were actually the work of other photographers.

In the early 1840s, while John Herschel was refining the blueprint (and related processes) in England, Brady and his studio produced photographic portraits of prominent Americans that were published in 1850 as The Gallery of Illustrious Americans.

Through his portrait work, Brady forged relationships with influential government leaders, and through those relationships he obtained permission to document the Civil War from the battlefield. The catch was that he had to finance the operation himself. He did so with the naïvely optimistic anticipation of selling the work for $100,000 or more when it was complete.

Employing a number of field photographers (many of whom later split with Brady because he required that their work be attributed to “Brady studio” instead of crediting them individually, by name), he and his photographers documented every phase of the war, including battlefields, camps, ruins, service corps, and corpses. An October 20, 1862 editorial in The New York Times described Brady’s exhibition, “The Dead of Antietam,” this way:

“… Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”

When they split with Brady in 1862, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan took their negatives with them. What remained in Brady’s collection was eventually sold for $25,000 to The National Archives to settle Brady’s considerable debts. Some of the glass negatives were sold for scrap before the sale to the Archives, and many of the original images were lost.

After the war, Gardner, O’Sullivan, and others took what they had learned from the battlefield experience — namely, how to transport, care for, and use cumbersome equipment in less than ideal conditions — and documented exploration of the American West.

O’Sullivan, Timothy. Black Cañon, from Camp 8, Looking Above. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1871. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; image in public domain.

I learned about these photographers while sitting in the basement of the converted elementary school that served as Princeton’s creative arts department headquarters. There was a classroom, of sorts, next to the darkroom. In the classroom we often sat around a table, looking at photographs and books, and listening to stories (no one would have considered them lectures) that Emmet told about the history of photography.

In that studio classroom were several view cameras of varying sizes, up to 11×14. To understand the work required of Brady and his team of documentary photographers, we were invited to experiment with that cumbersome equipment, to consider what it would have been like to haul around cameras (weighing 15 or so pounds each), glass plates, chemistry, and a portable darkroom.

Our classroom work was a clinical type of exploration, rooted in curiosity and not commentary. Brady, Gardner and O’Sullivan were no more or less important or relevant than, for instance, Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Kasebier. Our textbooks included Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, Upton and Upton’s Photography (third edition, 1985), and John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and Looking at Photographs. I must note that, among his other career achievements, Szarkowski is perhaps best known for his controversial 1976 decision to mount an exhibition of work by Memphis photographer Bill Eggleston — an exhibition that concurrently legitimized color photography as an art form and added dimension to the philosophical debate about beauty, about value and meaning in imagery, and about the ordinary versus the extraordinary.

“It can be said with certainty only that photography has remained for a century and a quarter one of the most radical, instructive, disruptive, influential, problematic, and astonishing phenomena of the modern epoch. It has in addition been the chosen vehicle of major artists as divergent in their perspectives as Alfred Stieglitz and Eugène Atget.

“The future of this beautiful, universally practiced, little-known art will be determined by young and unborn photographers, who will decide how best to build on their rich and ambiguous tradition.”

Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.

When I write that blue is my favorite color, what I mean is that the color blue is something I experience physically, viscerally.

The essay that resulted in my otherwise unlikely admission to Princeton (an essay written by hand while sitting on my bed, two hours before my mother and I drove to the post office to get the application postmarked by the December 31 deadline) was about the color blue, how I was becoming the color blue, how I felt blue coursing through my body. Writing that essay is the only thing I can remember about the entire process of applying to college, almost four decades later.

There was an element of intentional self-sabotage in writing that essay, on that topic, by hand, without preparation. I did not want to go to an elite college. I wanted to be normal, ordinary. I wanted to enjoy life, be happy, and continue in creative pursuits — art, music, and theater.

I dreamed of becoming an actress and an artist, a woman of letters and music. How would I eventually support myself, financially, when I became this educated woman of letters? Marriage, of course. That was my plan, in 1983.

Then I was accepted at Princeton and, with a bit of prodding, figured I should go. There, as I’ve written, I met Emmet Gowin, and I abandoned both acting and painting (mostly) for photography.

After college I taught kids how to tell stories with photographs and how to make cyanotypes and use pinhole cameras, which was all good fun but did not pay enough to cover my Boston rent, even with a side business catering dinner parties.

A friend convinced me to go into marketing, which led to writing, and for more than 20 years I wrote corporate stories and fundraising stories and a few things in between, building a career organically as I went, having never made a plan to do any such thing.

And I married, as I did plan to do, though almost nothing in my marriage looks anything like the mental model I had for it when I was 17, sitting on my bed, writing an essay about becoming the color blue.

That cyanotypes lacked seriousness, that they were considered common, ordinary, and relatively unimpressive did not dampen my enthusiasm but instead invigorated it. They lacked fine detail but made up for it in painterly qualities that were often accidental. They were un-fussy and felt instantly familiar. Like me, they didn’t quite line up with their category’s standard-bearers.

My first blueprint, made from a borrowed negative, was an image of a tree. I don’t remember the second, third, tenth, or hundredth print after that first one, only that I made more cyanotype prints than I could count, along with platinum, palladium, salt, Vandyke, and gum bichromate prints – working through the cannon of “alternative” printing processes.

Together, as curious, young, naïve, lucky students, we explored the world of landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, and street photography. We debated the “merits” of fine art versus commercial work, of storytelling and photojournalism. Were Nick Nixon’s “Photographs from One Year” art or documentation? Were photographs as “valuable” as paintings? As other forms of print-making?

There were only a handful of us officially pursuing the relatively new (at that time) visual arts certification within the Department of Art & Archaeology. Within that small handful was an even smaller subset of photography-focused (sorry…) students, one of whom would go on to be a MacArthur Genius, another of whom later turned his keen eye toward entrepreneurship.

The entrepreneurial classmate was one of the first among our growing list of class memorials. He died two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer, a year after completing his MBA, seven years after we left the halls, and basement darkroom, of 185 Nassau Street. “An anonymous donation was given to the university’s visual arts program in his memory with the goal of helping students develop similar interests.”

The second time I moved back to Memphis, in the early 1990s, I became acquainted with a photographer who, like Emmet, was in the RISD class of 1967. Like Emmet, this Memphis-based photographer taught at the college level and was known more for his philosophical approach to art and the world than for his technical instruction.

Outside of his teaching, he became involved with a local not-for-profit mental health organization that started an annual fundraising event called Works of Heart. Local artists were each given a 12″ wooden heart as base material, and the finished pieces (some painted, others turned into sculpture, etc.) were auctioned with proceeds benefitting the mental health agency.

The first auction was held at a local TV station. Several of my artist friends had been selected to participate, and one of them invited me to the auction party as her guest. “You should have a piece in this show next year,” she said to me. So she introduced me to Murray Riss, who both fascinated and intimated me, and all I could think to say was, “I studied with Emmet,” because I knew they’d been classmates, 25 years earlier, both studying with Harry Callahan at RISD, and I was in my 20s, and college time, with college people, was still my framework for seeing the world.

A 25-year milestone, as I’ve come to see it, signifies a particular kind of journey.

To reach the age of 25, one must survive childhood playgrounds, puberty, and the decisions that accompany reaching legal drinking age. If things go the ordinary course, then by age 25 (an age most humans do reach) a person will have concluded, science tells us, the basic work of growing into adulthood. Armed with a fully “wired” prefrontal cortex and the basic skills needed to navigate life’s open waters, a person, at 25, is fully formed in essence, still developing in nuance.

Similarly, to reach the 25th anniversary of an event or commitment — marriage, sobriety, employment, graduation — a person must survive a different kind of developmental gauntlet. This journey, marked by trials of love, loss, boredom, and the occasional insight, also ends at a crossroads, and might begin to point toward something larger.

It follows, then, that the 25th reunion year is a major event for any school. At Princeton it’s “the big one,” as the late Anne Rivers Siddons wrote, in her hilariously moving, “Reunions Make Me Cry,” essay, published in 1976 and reissued in 2012, coincidentally my 25th reunion year.

In regrettable point of fact, I have always been a bit in awe of Heyward’s glossily ivied classmates and their tasteful backgrounds, and have envied those who walked easily in the cloistered world of Princeton and its peers ever since I read Scott Fitzgerald (who apparently never stopped carrying a big stick while he walked there softly, either). I have the traditional insular, truculent Southerner’s distrust of the East, and would dearly love to be able to toss off references to tea at Dean Conant’s or the Yale-Princeton weekend when we went back to Colonial and ran into old Thornby, who’s just back the Middle East and tells marvelous stories about the Saudis.

But I can’t, and no husbandly attempts to assure me I would Fit Right In and Everybody would Love Me assuaged the niggling certainty that the men would tease me kindly like a retarded child and the women would tell me what a sweet dress I had on, and everybody would agree behind our backs that old Siddons certainly had himself a quaint little second wife.

Siddons, Anne Rivers. “Reunions Make Me Cry.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 10, 1976.

Reunions is hard to describe. It’s a lively, comical, slightly obscene event, enjoyed by a sea of 25,000+ alumni dressed in orange and black for three straight days, all moving to the sounds of a hundred different bands and playlists and choruses, but somehow still in unison. It’s the stuff of beer-forged friendships and deep endowments, lovely but at the same time the tiniest bit unsavory, like childbirth or an oversized serving of ice cream.

Costumes, or at least school-color-coordinated articles of clothing, are expected and provided (meaning, available for purchase). At the end of senior year, in a tradition dating back almost 100 years, soon-to-be graduates receive what’s called a beer jacket, a sturdy, practical covering to protect one’s clothing from spills during graduation celebrations. At 5, 10, 15 and 20 year marks, each class designs a costume for all classmates to wear. For our 10th, as an example, our class wore orange, nylon spacesuits that were ridiculous in the best, most festive way.

At the 25 year mark, the point by which one (theoretically) should have arrived in life, classmates purchase a class jacket, a more dignified and stately (if still ridiculous) item to replace the beer jacket of old. Designed by and for that one class, and the 25th reunion jacket becomes the main “costume” for every gathering thereafter.

Some 25th jackets are simple, others flamboyant. Our class jacket could be described as a blend of Lilly and Liberty, executed in orange and black – pretty in its swirling, Asian influence, but loud enough to prompt the comment, from a male classmate’s non-Tiger friend upon seeing his picture: “Dude, did you fall into Liberace’s wardrobe?”

Of all the reasons I’ve given, and written about, for not attending, for starting a blog instead, here’s the true one: I did not attend my 25th reunion because I did not feel like I fit in. I had always been an outsider to the pomp and circumstance of Princeton, and 25 years after graduating I was beginning to feel settled in that truth but still wrestling with it.

A month after our 25th reunion, a childhood friend who’d also been in my college class, died unexpectedly after having a heart attack in his office. He and I had lost touch over time but were still friendly and were connected on social media. Reading about his sudden death and looking at the happy photographs he had shared from our 25th festivities, I made a mental note that I shouldn’t miss the 30th gathering, whether I fit in or not.

So I went. And, as I wrote shortly after going, what I found, 30 years removed from that bubble world, was the simple and obvious truth that people don’t change. They – we – remain, in essence, the same in silver-haired years as at 20. No one – not one single man or woman – was different from the person I knew 30 years ago, Liberace jackets and orange spacesuits notwithstanding. 

Five years ago I went; I saw; I hugged; I laughed. And, satisfied that things were as they should be, I returned home with a sense of closure, thinking I might return for our 50th, if fate permitted that opportunity.

For my 35th reunion, though, I was invited to speak on an alumni-faculty panel. The topic was not art or creativity or writing, but mental health reform. I joined four other Tigers, from different major reunion years, in a discussion facilitated by the director of campus counseling. In our Zoom call to plan and rehearse, we joked about the 10 people who’d likely be in attendance, thinking mental health would have a tough time competing as a topic against economic policy, international political affairs, and similar panels that were more on-brand for Princeton.

I’m glad to report that we were wrong about that. (You can read about our discussion and learn more about the panelists here.)

After the panel discussion ended, a recent alum and current graduate student stopped me in the hallway. His graduate work is focused on the intersection of neurodiversity and creativity. He was curious to know if I’d thought much about how the study of visual art and work as a practicing artist played into my current work in coaching and mental health.

Six years ago when I started working at what is now Kindred Place, I was trained in a parent coaching model called Parent Aide, a “promising practice” for child development in which lay volunteers (meaning, people like me who were not counselors or social workers) were trained to work with parents on parenting. The framework for Parent Aide was (is) Eric Erikson’s model of human development:

  • Stage 1 (Infancy): Trust vs. Mistrust (“Can I trust the world?”)
  • Stage 2 (Early Childhood): Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt (“Is it OK to be me?”)
  • Stage 3 (Preschool/Kindergarten): Initiative vs. Guilt (“Is it OK for me to move around in the world?”)
  • Stage 4 (Elementary School): Industry vs. Inferiority (“Can I interact with the world?”)
  • Stage 5 (Adolescence): Identity vs. Identity confusion (“Who am I? Who can I be?”)
  • Stage 6 (Young Adulthood): Intimacy vs. Isolation (“Can I love?”)
  • Stage 7 (Adulthood): Generativity vs. Stagnation/Self-absorption (“Can I make my life count?”)
  • Stage 8 (Old Age): Integrity vs. Despair (“Did my life have meaning?”)

Most often, Erikson’s work is used as a reference for child development, specifically focusing on his notion of emotional building blocks that, cumulatively and over time, form the structural foundation (or lack thereof) for a lifetime of healthy emotional growth and relationships.

Young children who have nurturing, safe, supportive relationships and environments develop trust, autonomy, and initiative to do well in school and to continue maturing with respect to their interactions with other people and with the world. Adolescents and young adults, likewise, who have what they need to keep growing and maturing will, in turn, become healthy, nurturing, mature adults who can parent the next generation of thinking, feeling, creative problem solvers.

Caring for one another, across generations and identities, is a human survival skill, an early evolutionary differentiator that is increasingly endangered by our allowing fear and doubt to cloud the path ahead.

What’s easy to miss or ignore in this model is that human development is an ongoing process that doesn’t end until the end. Put another way, it’s easier to think of what adults need to do in support of the first five stages than to acknowlege that young adulthood, adulthood, and “old age” are also developmental building blocks.

Think, perhaps, of an image that emerges slowly. While the primary outlines, the basic structure of the deepest and darkest parts, develop quickly, the fine details that give the image shape and dimension may become visible only over time.

The Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton, New Jersey.

Twenty years after I graduated, Princeton announced an extraordinary donation from Peter Lewis, class of ’55, to build the Lewis Center for the Arts: Princeton in Service to the Imagination. The building, prominently located near the old dinky train station and late-night haunt WaWa, is stunning in general but especially in comparison to the makeshift elementary school at 185 Nassau Street that we called home for our junior and senior years of dedicated creative study. “[D]esigned to put the creative and performing arts at the heart of the Princeton experience,” the facility is a physical testament to what money and imagination can do.

An irony, to me, is that the University president who led the initiative to build this new center, who secured the gift and spoke boldly about the role of creative pursuits in the context of Princeton, is the same University president who, when approached by a student who was concerned about students’ mental health and the mental toll of Princeton exceptionalism, responded that there was no such mental health crisis on campus. Not at Princeton.

Of course there was, and is, a mental health crisis at Princeton. There’s a mental health crisis everywhere. Compound that burgeoning, universal crisis with pressure to perform, pressure to succeed, pressure to make an indelible mark on the world (ideally, by the 25th reunion), and it only worsens.

It festers until comes out in open air. And when it does come out, we see the essential underlying truth that everyone struggles in some way, at some time in life.

Everyone struggles, and therapy is sometimes – but not always – helpful in that struggle. The way we’ve looked at that struggle, however, has been through a distorted inverse, seeing emotional struggle as an aberration, an exceptional abnormality, when in fact it is as normal and common as breathing to experience uncomfortable or unsettling feelings. To be human is to struggle emotionally, in varying degrees, at varying times. It is an experience we all share, whether or not we talk about it publicly.

When we look at mental health as mental wellbeing, as an essential part of messy, wonderful human experience, then perhaps we might find healing, Perhaps we can find growth and renewed creative energy to connect us in a deeper and more meaningful ways, to guide our later stages of human development, to help us heal the broken world.

Cameron, Julia Margaret. “Sir John Herschel.” Albumen print, 1867.

When I look, now, at Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Sir John Herschel, I see the same photograph that I loved at first sight, when I was 19 years old. Now, of course, I also see context and depth that I couldn’t understand at the time.

Herschel, who discovered the cyanotype process at age 50, introduced Cameron to photography in 1839. But she didn’t own a camera herself until 1863, when she was 48. Much of her work was constructed fictions, not documentary portraiture. Her “Madonna and Children,” in the Museum of Modern Art and not freely sharable, was one of the 100 images included in John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. Of Cameron Szarkowski wrote:

“These pictures by Cameron have been something of an embarrassment to her most sympathetic critics during the past generation, a period when photography has seemed ill-adapted to the functions of fiction. Nevertheless, the picture opposite [Madonna with Children] … seems today a splendid picture: strongly constructed, well described, and, more important, strangely moving.”

Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.

He also quoted her writing about her own work, notably the portrait of Herschel:

“When I have such men before my camera, my whole soul has endeavored to do my duty towards them, in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner, as well as the features of the outer man.”

Szarkowski, John. Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.

The intimacy and beauty of Cameron’s work strikes a chord that feels identical to the way I experience the color blue. It is the same feeling now as when I was much younger, though there is ever-increacing nuance to it: wonder, curiosity, intimacy, peace. Did either Herschel or Cameron know, in the course of their friendship, that the friendship itself was something extraordinary, that it, as much as their work and discoveries, would leave as clear and enduring an imprint?

“Night Swimming,” 1987.

It’s sunny and mild outside, as I finish up this writing on a Saturday morning, 10 years after deciding to reserve Saturday mornings to create this blog. I have most of this day entirely to myself, free to write and work on Larksome Goods and make art. Since it’s sunny and mild, it’s an ideal day for printing cyanotypes.

I am working, this morning, on an image of a tree, using the same borrowed negative that I used to print my first cyanotype, in the spring of 1985, sitting on a sidewalk outside that old elementary school, on the outer, fringe edge of campus. I’m curious to see, literally and figuratively, what comes up for me, what happens next, what new discovery might emerge from this now-ancient artifact.

I have been thinking, while listening to birds and watching an astonishing chemical reaction, about aspirations and plans, about extraordinary things and people.

About a friend of almost 40 years now who texted, just weeks ago, about coming to Reunions, “I always feel a bit of anxiety about these things,” to which I replied, “Me, too.”

About how things, and people, do and don’t change, how history doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself, how history isn’t, as Brené Brown quipped recently, “a blueprint.”

About the importance of making friends and asking them for help, about how that might be the most important human work of all.

About how teaching, at its purest, can feed curiosity.

About how 25 is like a pullout on a mountain road, a great place to pause for perspective, but not a peak in itself.

About how it’s possible to build something without a plan, though, in retrospect, having at least an outline of a plan might have been more prudent.

And, of course, about beauty in unexpected places, about the miraculous privilege of an ordinary life, and the requirement accompanying that gift.

Precisely what the next decade holds for any of us is a mystery. And while our histories are not necessarily our immutable destinies, what I believe is this: Each of us, by age 25 or so, has an internal blueprint for how we’ll venture forward into the uncharted world ahead.

That blueprint is the knowing we carry, the deep inner wisdom that can guide us, teach us about the world and ourselves, if we’ll let it.

Cheers to 10 years together, for all of you who’ve accompanied me along the way. How magnificent. Thank you.