I’ve hesitated sharing this because I didn’t think it was relevant to making or art or creativity. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in many ways it underscores both what and why we make and it’s one of the Big Questions that has come up time and time again on episodes of On Taking Pictures: Am I where I need to be?
Seven or eight years ago, I was driving up Archibald Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga, California. I was stopped at the light at Baseline and Archibald and an elderly man began walking from the left corner though the crosswalk in front of me. Just before he reached the curb, he stumbled and fell. At the same time, the light changed to green. I hesitated, watching him try to pick himself up. “Should I get out and help?” I thought to myself. Horns began blaring behind me. I panicked and slowly accelerated through the intersection, glancing into my rear view mirror as I drove away. For the next few days, I beat myself up for not getting out to help, for allowing the blaring horns or my own fear of “getting involved” get the better of me. Never again. I made a promise that I would never again ignore the opportunity to help someone, if it was within my ability.
Fast forward to last week. I was working down in the studio and as I came upstairs, I heard a cat meowing. It sounded distressed. I walked from one end of the house to the other, trying to figure out where it was coming from and then it stopped. A few minutes later, it started again. “Meow! Meow!” it called out. I went out into the front yard, and again it stopped. As I walked back to the side door, the cries began again, except that this time, it wasn’t “meow” but “help.” I tried but still couldn’t quite hear exactly where the sound was coming from. All of the large trees in the back yard make it sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location, since the sound gets bounced around so much. I made my way across the yard and heard the cries for help much more clearly. I also saw the source: on the deck of one of the houses behind us was an elderly woman on the ground, head slumped down and one arm half-cradling the frame of her walker. “Help. Help,” she cried out softly. I ran through the trees to the back fence and bounded over it into her back yard. As I reached her, it was obvious that she had fallen pretty hard. There was a golfball-sized knot on her forehead and blood was trailing down her temple. “Please help me,” she said. “I can’t move my legs.” I cleared away the branches and tools and gently helped her onto the seat of her walker. She told me that she had been doing some gardening and fell onto the concrete. “It’s happened before, but usually the neighbors hear me. I guess they aren’t home today,” she said. I helped her into her house and got her a cold compress and an ice pack. She asked how I heard her and I told her that my wife and I live in the just house behind theirs. “Oh,” she said. “my name is Mary. My husband built your back room.” Turns out, I had actually met her daughter and son-in-law last Thanksgiving and her son-in-law — who was also friends with the previous owners of our house — told us the story of our back room. I got Mary a glass of water and asked if anything felt broken. She assured me that she was fine, despite the knot on her forehead and the scrapes on her arms. We found her phone and she called her son and daughter. I wrote my name and number on a piece of paper and told her that I work from home most days and if she needed anything to call. Her son arrived a few minutes later. He was understandably upset, and perhaps a bit confused at seeing a strange man standing in his mother’s kitchen as he walked in. She explained what happened and, after briefly scolding her for doing something she shouldn’t be, he insisted that they go to the hospital. She said she didn’t need a hospital and that she’d done much worse before this. They both thanked me profusely and as they continued the discussion about whether or not they would be going to the hospital, I excused myself and made my way back home.
I think this experience has impacted me for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that I need to be attentive and available to others — to “get involved,” to engage, to connect, to continue to treat people like something other than a transaction. The second is that it speaks to one of the recurring existential questions that many of us keep asking ourselves: “Am I where I need to be?” You could also interpret that as “Am I doing what I need to be doing?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself countless times — for some of you that may mean geographically, for others that may mean emotionally, or even creatively. Regardless of how it applies to you, I have no doubt that in some way it does apply. It’s one of those universal questions that often feels unanswerable, especially when we are deep in the throes of questioning our own creativity. While my first response is to look for what it means, in the end, maybe it was just the Universe simply saying “Yes, Jeffery, you are exactly where you need to be. Now exhale, stop worrying about it and get back to work.” And so it is
Are you where you need to be? What are the biggest challenges that get between you and making?
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If you love pencils, erasers and all manner of notebooks (and who doesn’t?), CW Pencil Enterprise has you covered. In addition to a fabulous product catalog of both new and vintage pencils curated by founder and namesake Caroline Weaver, there’s a terrific blog that features reviews, guest editorials and interviews with creatives. You can even purchase a mystery Pencil Box for the graphite lover in your life.
Nikon may not have released a new camera to celebrate their 100th anniversary (releasing color variants of existing cameras and lenses is an epic fail), but they did make a super-cool time lapse of the Earth from the International Space Station. A new digital F would have been amazing, but I guess the movie will have to do.
I recently sat down with my friend and terrific pinhole photographer Jon Wilkening for an episode of his podcast, The Creative Bar, to talk about creativity and why making stuff is so hard. I enjoy talking to Jon — he’s one of those friends that regularly holds your feet to the fire, but always from a space of respect.