I really used to be into photography – back when chemicals and darkrooms and countless hours developing paper in washes and acids was exciting and yet painfully tedious. No “erase” buttons on the cameras back then. Just hoping that the f Stops and depths-of-field were correct. Bracket shots just in case. Have lots of film on hand and rely on judgement and training to turn out a semi-decent shot.
You know, the one thing anyone needs to know about photography is that it’s all about light. That’s it. We control the intensity and amount of light and in the end it allows us a full range of photos – from the mundane to the profound, from the dingy and dirty to the sharp and pristine. We adjust and tweak and just flat out make a mess of errors to see things the way that we think we see them or want to see them.
We have many filters.
Reflection, refraction, refocus.
Two men came into my life a few weeks ago.
As I look into the lens of the short time that has spanned since, I can see two different series of snapshots, and two different series of prints developing slowly before me, each with a variety of hues and shadows and shines. I await to see what turns to dark tones and what careens towards light and brightness. Most photos are balanced. Some are not.
Snapshot #1: I meet K at a meeting. It is clearly his first one and I sit one seat from him. We speak during and after the meeting. I nudge him towards picking up a 24-hr chip. I give him my number and part ways, imbued with the energy one has when they have spoken to a newcomer, charged with the ions that float through a spirit that feels that they have perhaps touched another in any small way. Moonlight shines brightly. Clean crisp lines.
Snapshot #2: I meet E through my old treatment centre. We speak several times on the phone about recovery, life, children, wives and booze. He likes to chat. More than me. Which is disturbing. The Creator has dropped a time bomb of patience and listening development right into my waiting lap. Thanks Creator. Me and E plan to meet at one of my sponsee’s one year medallions. I am filled with the warmth that courses through one when they have found a kindred comrade of sorts. Dusk’s cooling light bounces off storefronts. Faint halos surround buildings.
One darkroom technique I learned in college was dodging. Another was burning. When the light doesn’t hit the film the way we want, we can manually etch more light onto the film, or we can block the light. It allows us to control and adjust and balance things on the celluloid. I also played with pushing and pulling film – deliberately under- or over-exposing the film and then under- or over-developing the film. This is for effect in playing with texture and contrast.
The whole idea behind these ways of manipulating light and shade and exposure is to correct what we see are flaws in the pictures. We get to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if need be by horsing around with these key methods and manners. Control, control and control until the photo gets to be the way we imagined it in the first place.
Snapshot #1A: I text and call K once or twice. I ask him to do some reading before we meet next time. He agrees to meet at a coffee shop a few days later and we chat for a while on a park bench. He hasn’t read anything yet. But I share my experiences, my lows, my highs, my recovery work, my ways of keeping sober. He has few, if any, questions. He is compliant, malleable, conciliatory and gentle. Gentlemanly in his agreeableness. Admits that he is confused if he should go to the cottage for the weekend. Drinks will be served there. I advise to stay away from booze for a while. Silence. Branches sway in the breeze. A car zooms by. The light is dimming over the clouds. It might rain. Fuzzy lines on the horizon.
Snapshot #2A: E calls me daily. Leaves me messages. Wants to meet up. How does this thing work, this recovery? We speak several times over a few days. He is anxious and excited and frightened at the same time. My kind of brother. The great thing is that he reminds me of me. The bad thing is that he reminds me of me. He is already hitting meetings and joining a group. He is starting to get excited about life again. Static hits the line on our last call. Sunflare perhaps. Burst of light zapping our conversation. Burning bright. Blasts of light illuminate the screen.
The darkroom was the perfect place for me – I got to be alone, to be isolated, to be in connection with something that I could finally control and overcome, I could get a sense of mastery of self and other things. I could doctor and shape things and forms. I was in control of what lay at my fingers, and through association, I unconsciously felt that I could control the forms and thoughts in my mind. Stop the chattering. Dodge the realities and fears, burn through the cravings and desires, push my limits and ego and pull back on engagement and life itself. I was exposed in the wrong light – I didn’t know who I was or what I was. Drinking helped me try to figure it out. Drinking was the liquid I dropped my blank self into and hoped to see the shape of a human come out.
Snapshot #1B: I get K to meet me at the local coffee shop. He brings his 14-month child. We try to do some work from the Big Book. It is near impossible with a wee one demanding attention. I ask him to mark up his book with the pencil in his hand. He doesn’t. He tells me that he drank on the weekend at the cottage. We talk about it. I then tell him that I will take him to a meeting later that night, and that I will give him an old stroller I have for his child. He later tells me that he is going to bed early. I drop off the stroller regardless. I smell beer on his breath. Shadows lurk in the corners. Lines are fading. Exposure spotty. Lens is clouded.
Snapshot #2B: I meet E at a deli and we talk about recovery. I can barely get a word in edgewise – he is hopped up on fear, excitement and nervousness. He is unbridled in his seeking. He descends upon me with countless questions, “me too” moments and emotional fluctuations that capture my attention and imagination. He wants it all and he wants it now. He is a sponge in search of a sea. He wants to do the work immediately. I ask him to read some pages. He jots them down, then jumps out of his seat to meet his friends after the just ended meeting down the street. I ride my bike in the light of a fading crescent. Features are highlighted. Light is focused in the rims of the darkness.
In the end, these snapshots, these two alcoholic men, are developing the way they are meant to develop. Unlike the pictures I took in college, these kind of projects are not in my realm of manipulation. I don’t get to shape and control them. I don’t have the power to have them seize onto sobriety or not. I don’t have the equipment, will or tools to convert black and white into colour.
You see, I am not The Principal Photographer for those snapshots, those men. I am just a reflection of His light. In my own picture of recovery, I can’t control the photos either – but I can adjust how much light that comes in. In working with others, I can open things up or squeeze the aperture closed more and more with selfishness, unwillingness or ego. My life is an ever developing roll of film. A few bad frames don’t entail my life. Darkness may fall upon some sections of the film, but it’s not the whole roll.
Willingness. Unwillingness. To me, that defines how much light I allow into my life. To me, that allows me to go as far as I need to go to maintain my recovery. To me, it’s the basic tenet in becoming well. I pray for both the new men in my path. I pray for willingness in one, and more willingness in the other. We can never have enough willingness, and the willing to want it all. And willing to want it all depends what we bring to the ocean of recovery and sunlight – a thimble or a bucket.
Today another string of photos pass me by. What light have I shed upon it, or allowed others to shed on it? What’s my focus? Where’s the lens pointed at?
Wherever you’re at, whatever you need to do, whatever your path is….shine on.