Last summer I found this photo of myself while going through a box of my mother’s photos that had disappeared for over 15 years, before a lost parcel service in Utah accidentally discovered it and sent it to me. It’s a proof picture from one of our annual Christmas card photo shoots that took place every fall for the first ten years of my life.
Each October my mother dressed me up in various outfits while a photographer posed me in different parts of our house and gardens for this annual Christmas ritual. Before I was born, all of the Christmas photos had been of my father and mother, my half-brother Barrett and the dogs. Now it was just me or me and the dogs.
Why the change in protocol? No one ever told me, but I’m pretty sure I know.
My mother had always disliked photos of herself, but after I was born when she was 45, she grew to loathe them. Because in them she thought she looked more like my grandmother than my mother. In fact, as I grew up and she entered her fifties and then sixties, when we were together people often asked her if I was her granddaughter. The question never elicited the humorous response it would have from my father. My mother always and only felt mortified.
Since my father was in the busiest period of his already busy life during the 1960s, and therefore on the road more often than not, I’m sure my mom easily talked my dad into having our Christmas cards leave them both out. She was off the visual hook!
I hated these photo shoots. They felt staged and uncomfortable. My clothes were too fancy and my bows too big, I had to wear tights (which I loathed) and my hair was always pulled back so tightly that my skin stretched taut.
I was a tomboy who liked running around in jeans or shorts, who adored riding horses and playing outside. I was also a kid who spent long long hours by myself in my room or down on the beach or out in the gardens reading or drawing or acting out imagined stories. I was an active kid who spent most of her days living inside her own imagination. These photo shoots under my mother’s scrutiny and a photographer’s lens made me horribly uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I knew better than to ever complain. I always tried to follow my mother’s directive: “Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself.” While at the same time appearing dignified and elegant and composed.
This proof photo, in which I actually look like I’m having fun, was not one that was chosen for our Christmas card. As a costume designer, my mother felt like her job — even with her own child (maybe especially with her own child!) — was to make everyone “look their best”.
In the photos that made the final cut each year, I always look like my mother wanted me to look — the well-dressed, well-behaved daughter of two dignified people sending our holiday greetings out to the waiting world.
Everyone seemed to love these photos — everyone but me. The child who looked back at me from these staged Christmas card photo shoots felt fake and imperfect. Sure her clothes were gorgeous and her expression pleasing. But that child was neither the real me nor the child my mother hoped me to be.
I felt like a perpetual disappointment . . . to us both.
But fifty years later, looking at this proof photo, what I now see a very very pretty and very very happy child. Why couldn’t I see that then? Why did I then, and why do I still, always look at photos of myself and see only what is never good enough?
A few years ago I found a series of photos that my mother had taken of my father and me after a day together at the beach. My first thought was — What a mess I am! My hair is a rat’s nest, my front teeth are missing, my dress is twisted, I have sand all over my feet — and I’m laughing so hard I can’t even stand up straight.
My second thought was . . . well, it wasn’t a thought. It was the feeling of pure joy that welled up from my heart as I remembered what it was to feel so loved by the dad I loved so much. To feel so much joy in his presence. To have laughed that hard and loved so much that that was all that mattered. Suddenly the mess that was me faded from view, and the felt memory of an absolutely glorious day at the beach was all that remained.
It wasn’t until months later that something else came to me — that the person who organized all of the Christmas photos and culled through them to find the best ones of her daughter was also the person who had taken this photo of her family — our clothes in disarray, our hair blown every which way in the beach wind, goofing around in pure joy.
In that moment I realized that when my mom was filled with the same love and joy that I always felt in my dad’s presence, she could lay aside her costume designer’s mania for perfect presentation and be in the same silly joy with us — even capturing it on film. In other words, my mother had the capacity to take off her critical glasses and see the world through the lens of love — even if she had to do it from behind the camera.
What I didn’t realize until I began writing this blog is that — when it comes to photos of myself and others whom I love — I do not. I never don’t look at a photo of myself or someone I love and see how we could look better. Never!
Is this because my mother trained me too well? Partially. But really it’s because my mother had something I thought I did not — she had the love she felt for my dad to override the self-criticism that perpetually lived inside her. In fact, after my parents were divorced, the pictures she took of me became more and more staged and artificial. Unprompted by our spontaneous eruptions of joy-filled love, the photos became less and less joy-filled.
Until I began writing this blog, I thought I no longer had the presence of my dad to stir me from my self-critical stupor. . .But of course, I do.
Now that I often find myself in situations where people want to have their photo taken with me. I am usually unflaggingly cheerful as I stand up and put my arm around someone’s shoulders and smile for the camera. I have on makeup and reasonably nice clothes and tasteful glasses that I hope will cover the worst of my wrinkles.
Paradoxically, despite my dislike of having my picture taken, I always enjoy sharing these moments with people — because when someone asks me if they can have a photo with me, the first thing I feel is love. The love I feel is always always my dad’s love coming through me.
As a little girl, I used to watch my dad happily stop whatever he was doing to be fully present to his fans — and I felt that the joy and connection and love those people felt in my dad’s presence was the same joy and connection and love that I felt his presence. In those moments, I felt that I was sharing my dad with others and we were all connected by love. I see now that I am still sharing that same love now with people. My dad’s love comes through even now. The same way it did when I was kid. I’m just the conduit.
But afterwards, when I see these photos of me, the self-loathing often kicks in. Like my mother, I scour each picture examining everything that I dislike about how I look, and thinking about ways to make it better.
I have lived with this ridiculously self-conscious self-loathing for far too long. What a waste of time!
I never know why I am going to write these blogs, or what is going to come through. But today while looking at this fifty-year-old Christmas photo, I found the Proof that my blog title portended I would. Not just proof that I was a pretty happy child of privilege, but the proof I always seem to find since having created a daily practice of joy — that the only way for any of us to change the way we see or feel or think about anything is to change the way we move through the world.
To look at photos of people enjoying one another’s company and see anything but love feels like the biggest betrayal. Wrinkles? Seriously? How can wrinkles matter more than love?
Turns out, proof of what I have always known resurfaced from this lost box of family photos: If we see the world through the lens of love, then we can move through the world with love. If we practice joy, we have more and more capacity to experience and express joy. But if we fulminate on fear and linger in loathing, we endlessly suffer in the swampland of self. And then, so does everyone else!
It’s far too simplistic blame the bad on my mom and laud the love in my dad. It’s the old stories of self that we all carry around that we have to be willing to jettison. The meaning of our lives is never found in what we think or have always thought — it in how we live our lives.
The more we consign ourselves to the pawn shops of our pasts, the less likely any of us are going to be to heal our futures. And if we don’t heal our own futures, this planet is not going to make it.
We have to be willing to write new stories less influenced by what we have come to believe are the hard and fast “truths” of our lives — and be willing to live our lives forward guided only and always by love.
This can feel hard to do. Every day there are people, circumstances, experiences that seem to bring up anything but love in us. All that means is that we have to love more. Love our loud neighbors and the man who lied about how much it would cost to fix the car. Love the person who cut us off in traffic or the guy kicking the back of our airplane seat. Love the wrinkles on our faces and the wrinkles in our daily schedule. Love the person who we believe never seems to really understand us and love the person who knows us seemingly far too well.
That’s what this childhood photo surfaced to prove to me. Not to love my wrinkles or even to love myself more. But actually just to love more. And then love some more. And then love more than that. And keep loving until Love leads us all back home to living in our hearts. Then and only then will we discover the real proof of how we are all going to be able to love one another and our planet back whole.