"Weathered Soul"

June 25, 2022
An early morning rainbow in rural Cedar County, Iowa. The weathered barn wood of this old corn crib has seen a lot, including much of my life story as it sits on the edge of my parents yard and looks out across the land that made me, and that I dream of still.

The following was written in late April. I held off on publishing it with the intent of writing an accompanying piece discussing this year’s State Fair entries- which I still intend to do- but time got away from me and it sort of got lost in the mix. I came across the saved file again recently though, and it served a needed personal reminder. It’s a piece I opened up with and poured a lot of my heart and inner truth into (which is maybe why there was some hesitation in publishing it also) but I suppose those are the ones that I need to find the courage to let see the light of day. So here it is… a couple of months late, but still relevant.

-A few weeks ago we wrapped up the 2022 March Madness Photo Showdown, and of the 32 images up for consideration this year, “Weathered Soul” came out on top. There were over a thousand votes cast from throughout the Western Hemisphere as we worked our way through the bracket, and I’m so appreciative of everyone who took the time to look and comment on my work.

I also want to recognize the following prize drawing winners:

Round 1- $25 gift certificate- Rita Burmeister

Round 2- $25 gift certificate- Michael Floy

Round 3- $25 gift certificate- Kathy Lamping

Round 4- $25 gift certificate- Jenn Meier

Final Drawing- $50 gift certificate- Nolan Mente

Congratulations to you all, and again, thank you so much to everyone who participated. You provided awesome feedback and I loved reading through all of your comments, and the many additional stories that people reached out to share. I hope that you enjoyed it too.

Following these contests it’s nice to take a moment to reflect on the winning image, and to do a little write-up to provide a more in depth look at the significance, or the story behind, the photo. I’m often asked if I remember “where” a photograph was taken. I know that it’s an innocent question, but one that always feels so bizarre to me. It’s almost like asking a parent if they remember where a child was born. My portfolio of images is like a card catalogue to my life. Each tied to a memory, and looking at any given photo takes me back not only to the location, but to all that surrounded it. The weather, the hike or travel to get there, everything that was taking place immediately outside of the frame; and even expanding on that, the emotions I was feeling and everything that was going on in my life at the time.

I think in that, “Weathered Soul” carries a lot of personal significance for me. It’s kind of ironic- I added a new twist to the tournament this year, giving viewers a chance to help pick the photos I will submit to this summer’s Iowa State Fair- but of those divisional winners, this is admittedly the one I’m least likely to send to Des Moines. (Watch for a post on my reasoning and official entries coming soon...) That doesn’t make it any less meaningful, however, or diminish the little heartstring tugs I felt watching as this image advanced through the contest.

“Weathered Soul” was photographed in July of 2019. It was a very heavy time of transition for me; an awfully difficult time. I’d gone home to Iowa for the summer and was staying with my parents, working at a local vineyard. I remember being in a rush on this particular morning (I’d probably overslept) and was racing to brush my teeth and get out the door when in my periphery I noticed a shift in the light coming through the window behind me. I turned to look across this old familiar scene, one that had enveloped my heart for decades. A view where I’d watched endless sunsets; and one I’d studied intently in anticipation of the approaching school bus, countless mornings of my youth.

It wasn’t physically the same as it had always been. My Dad’s barn- where I’d spent so many hours by his side helping with chores, and in childhood play exploring the passage ways and building forts in the hay mow- had gone down in a windstorm a few years before. Trees I’d first learned to climb had long fallen; the basketball hoop where my cousins and I played many hotly contested games of H-O-R-S-E now gone. Like so much in life, so many things I’d once thought or hoped would always be there no longer visible- yet time could never steal them from my heart. Every footstep across that landscape holds the memories most sacred to me, and which will forever live on within that view.

My toothbrush fell to the bottom of the sink with a clang. I raced to grab my camera and hit the backdoor running just as the partial rainbow started to emerge. It lasted only a few fleeting seconds, but long enough for me to get across the driveway, intuitively find a composition and fire off a few shutter clicks. I focused on this corncrib (a century long companion that stood beside my Dad’s old barn) as the gorgeous light washed across the worn rustic sideboards, seeming to set it aglow. The rainbow soon faded, and with it the barnwood softened to a drab gray as storm clouds regained control of the sky. I put my camera away and continued on my morning routine, arriving ten minutes late to work.

It would be an exaggeration to claim the instant this photo was taken as some moment of grand epiphany. Truth be told, it was kind of surreal in a sense that while I was aware of the beauty in the scene, I was in such a mental fog at the time that I couldn’t really feel it as I normally would. My reaction was more like muscle memory. I had recognized something momentary and special unfolding, and it’s always been my nature to try and preserve such. It’s in this preservation, however, that can also provide opportunity for deeper reflection later on; so I think that’s where this photo has come to have such significant personal meaning to me. And it does so in a number of ways.

One of those is in how it ties in to the things I said above. The lifetime of memories held within this frame, or just out of view. All that I see which will always remain- many of the most precious moments of my time on Earth which have played out across this landscape. And while time and circumstance have changed things in ways I never would have wanted, they cannot rob me of those experiences, the lessons learned, or the truths within my heart.

Another is in the things happening in my life back when this photo was taken- or maybe a better way of saying that is in the path I was turning to in response. It was a time full of self-resentment, and one where I felt wholly shattered and lost. I had no idea what to do and little faith in what my life could still become- but I knew that I needed to figure something out. I needed to find some reason to believe in myself- a task that has never come easily for me, and at a time when beneath the surface I was struggling to feel I had any right to. Doing so wasn’t out of selfishness or ego, but because it was the only conceivable way of trying to move forward. So in that I sought to identify what I might possibly have to offer, if there was still anything meaningful or positive I might contribute in this life- and all I could come up with was in rededicating myself to the pursuits of photography and writing. Not only had these passions always felt like my calling, they were the only ways I felt I might show the larger world, and admittedly maybe even myself, that I had any worth left at all.

I know that all sounds a bit self-loathing, and actually kind of messed up, but it’s an honest assessment of where my head was at the time. It’s not the full story of what this photo has come to represent to me now, but I think it kind of sets the stage and reminds of the direction I was taking, even if convoluted by the background chatter in my mind. I think (I hope) what is actually more telling now in hindsight though, is that these thoughts really played no part in my decision to run out the door that morning. I didn’t race to the scene because I felt there was something I needed to prove. I did it because it was in my truest nature to do so. I sensed that an incredible sight was taking shape and something deep within my very core just needed to witness it; and I grabbed my camera because of an equally compelling desire to share the scene with others. It was pure. It was instinctive. It was who I am.

In the weeks, months and years to follow, I have maintained that commitment, or at least the intent, to devote myself to photography and writing. I slip up every now and then and refer to it as trying to build a career in these disciplines, which I think is somewhat misleading. Of course I want to be able to make a living doing these things that I love, but I don’t mean to imply any type of financial aspiration as a motivating factor beyond having the freedom to focus on them fully. Regardless, it’s been a pretty rough road, both personally and professionally, for me ever since.

In that time, however, my thoughts have evolved quite a bit and I think there was some raw emergence of that on the morning this photo was taken. As I said, though I knew I was viewing something special, I was also aware that the experience just wasn’t touching me the same as it once would have. Even in the strong symbolism of the rainbow- something that I’ve long felt represents so many of the best things in life- hope and wonder and magic and love- I felt I’d fallen out of reach. I realize now that I was embarking on a period of grief, and depression was strengthening its grip, but it was a gut-wrenching realization to question if in this life such things could ever be for me again. Yet I recognized that they still existed for others, and that symbolism still remained. I still believed in all of those things, and even if they were uncertain in my own future now, I understood how lucky I was ever to have known them. I knew that I wanted to continue to advocate for these ideals, and try to live a life that embodied their existence; to urge others to believe and be blessed by them as well.

I’ve tried hard to find solace and draw strength by growing in this philosophy since. Even when I’m left feeling numb to the things that make life so precious, and convinced that some of those are just no longer meant for me, I can still see the beauty in them. I can still believe in them, celebrate the joy they bring others, and encourage people to embrace all of life’s wonders. But only if I fight to keep my heart open, and to keep trying, even through the darkest of times.

Ultimately, that’s what this photo means to me. It’s a reminder of that. And if we bring it full circle (I know… it’s in a very roundabout way) there are a lot of parallels to be drawn. Just as I can look at this image and note the missing pieces, I can gaze across the landscape of my present life and do the same. But nothing can take away the things that I’ve been fortunate to experience- the hope and wonder and magic and love. The beauty of those moments will be with me forever. I’ve been blessed with chapters in my life that have proven their existence, and can continue to embrace that and encourage the same belief and experiences for others- if I only approach this world with an open heart.

And if you’ll indulge me back around again (just one more lap…) you’ll remember that when this photo was taken, I was in the process of deciding to re-dedicate myself to the pursuits of photography and writing. Not as a hobby, not as a side gig, not as a maybe someday- but as the focus of what I wanted to do with my life. And not because I was seeking attention or wealth (definitely the wrong career path there…) or even, once you get to the heart of it, because I have anything to prove. It’s because at my very core, my purest self- it’s just who I am. Writing and photography are my conveyances of expression- the tools I use to try and make a positive contribution with my life. I can use them to advocate for people and our natural world, and to try and remind anyone willing to look or listen how special life can be.

With all of that, and where I am now, it feels kind of fitting that this photo was voted this year’s March Madness winner and has presented me reason to once again reflect on all of this. The years since this moment have been full of hardship, dark times and challenges… but I’m still standing. (Albeit a little weathered myself.) So as I write this, two weekends from the planned start of my 2022 season, full of uncertainty of the choices I’m making or what I should do- I’m reminded of that. The purity in this moment, and the things I want to devote myself to. Witnessing and documenting the beauty of life, and advocating others experience it for themselves. That’s the message, and it’s the reason, that I need to keep going.

For all of the truths that live on within my heart.

Posted in Photography, Life.