Ordinary things every mother has seen

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Look in almost anyone’s shoebox of family photos and you’ll find mostly smiles. Some real, some given on command. Kids standing like sticks in front of the cabin or Epcot Center. Days at the pool, days at the beach, birthday parties and Halloweens.

In the mid 1980s Sally Mann set out to photograph her children growing up. But she did something unusual. She consciously decided to include the ugly and awkward parts that many people want to exclude from their image of childhood. Bleeding noses, wet beds, black eyes, bad moods. Hints of vulnerability and danger.

Her collection, called Immediate Family, didn’t obsess with the disturbing parts of childhood. There are shots of goofing off, dressing up, and playing board games. But it’s obvious she made a point of including shots that suggest that childhood isn’t squeaky clean, that it’s also riddled with moments of awkwardness, shame, fear and confusion.

I couldn’t figure exactly what it was about these images that I loved so much, until I read what filmmaker Steven Cantor had said about them:

“I was so moved by Sally’s expression of childhood the way I remembered it — as a complex and enigmatic time — and not the innocent and naive period adults often project it to be.”

Yes! Bingo. Childhood isn’t simple at all, except to adults. It’s confusing and awesome, sometimes traumatic, sometimes dark, sometimes absurd.

Those typical shoebox photos cherrypick the sanitary moments and ignore the rest, as if only the light and easy parts have value. They suggest that kids spend their days playing because they don’t have to take anything seriously yet. But in reality kids explore and play because they need to learn about the world, fast. They need those black eyes and awful moments, and they need to have curiosity and low inhibitions to get them.

So if we’re going to take the value of childhood seriously, we can’t pretend it consists only of birthdays and school plays and trips to Grandma’s. Sally Mann saw that childhood play isn’t actually frivolous, it’s a vital learning process, and the unsettling parts of it are absolutely necessary. And because they are so vital, they’re beautiful too. 

Sally Mann just wanted to create a more honest and meaningful record of her children’s growing-up experience. “Many of these pictures are intimate, some are fictitions and some are fantastic,” she said, “but most are of ordinary things that every mother has seen.”

I don’t know quite when this happens, but adults generally settle into the notion that children don’t really have anything to worry about yet, because they don’t have jobs or bills.

In reality, they have a much more difficult responsibility: taking in the world with few filters, and making sense of the unjust, the disturbing, the confusing and the violent. No matter what parents do to shelter their kids, all of these facts of life are inevitably first encountered in childhood. Interpreting the world is an extraordinarily difficult job, yet every kid must do it some way or another.

For better or worse, by adulthood we have a whole arsenal of presumptions in place to explain how and why things happen, and so we don’t have to wonder as much, don’t have to ponder as much. We feel like we no longer need to treat each moment as a special case.

But head-on raw experience is the only mode of seeing we have as kids. And so life comes at us like a firehose, before we succumb to the fate of all adults, which is to come to live almost entirely in our thoughts. Patterns and expectations take over. We feel as if we’ve seen it all before, we know our limitations, we know all the possibilties, and there’s no longer a need to watch what actually happens. Life becomes a collection of recurring symbols, which we learn to either covet, avoid, or ignore.

If your high school teachers ever made you read The Catcher in the Rye, that’s exactly the tragedy that made Holden Caulfield so goddam upset. It’s not innocence that kids lose as they get older — even two year olds can be seasoned liars — it’s their ability to interact with life itself rather than their thoughts about it.

Holden Caulfield was perpetually disturbed by this, but couldn’t quite articulate it. All he knew was that the only place in the world that felt right to him was to stand on the edge of an imaginary field of rye where children are playing, so he could catch them before they fall into the ravine.

No kid would ever agree that there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s crazy. The world is unfathomably huge, and that will always be true. But as we shrink into adulthood, the world appears smaller to us. Television speeds this up. By twenty we’ve surely at least seen pictures of every country, every landscape, every exotic animal. The world feels explored and explained.

We can even come to believe we’ve felt every emotion, and that the only thing to do is secure more of the ones we like and protect ourselves from the ones we don’t like.

It also feels like we really know ourselves. We become certain of what we can be and what we can never be. We perceive our limits as wherever we were the last time we failed.

This is all thinking, all nonsense, all symptoms of the affliction we call normal adulthood. It feels like there’s no dark area left to explore. We get to know the map real well, and lose the territory.

When I was a teenager I remember wondering how it was so damn easy to have fun as a young kid. We’d make up games on the spot, and have a blast until we were called in for dinner. There was no hesitation and there were way more possiblities.

As an adult I find almost everything I do has time looming over it somehow. If I do this now, will I have time for that later? Will I regret this?

This terrible seriousness catches up with everyone. I don’t think there’s any way around it.

At the end of the day, it’s just a habit of thinking though — we all know that the breadth of possiblity doesn’t really shrink as you get to adulthood. You have more options than children, more independence than children. You have money, skill and power. But you also accumulate so many hair-trigger critical thoughts, so many artificial walls, that you feel like your options have actually narrowed.

We do end up in the ravine.

As we exit childhood all of us eventually lose our lives for our thoughts. If you’re reading this you almost certainly have. You can stumble into the ravine, but you don’t stumble out. Falling is always an accident, and getting up never is. There’s no climbing up the other side until we recognize we have lost something. And it’s not simply a childish, pre-responsibility living situation that goes away, it’s a capacity for real, sustained moment-to-moment attention.

The filters we accumulate are preconceptions that we hang on to in order to protect ourselves — not to limit ourselves, but that’s the effect they have. If life bears down on a child like a firehose, there are bound to be difficult moments sooner or later, and that child will learn to narrow the opening so that less of life actually touches them.

When we advance deeper into adulthood and get wiser and better able to deal with the difficult bits, we forget that we’re still looking at the world through such a tight aperture, compared to how wide it once was.

It is possible to widen the opening again, if you begin to look at your thoughts as thoughts. Thoughts are almost always reflexes. They’re usually kind of dumb. So it’s absolutely necessary to scrutinize the ones that tell you what you can’t do, what you can’t be, and what you can’t do without.

Your mind is telling you this crap all the time, and it’s only ever conditioning. Very little of it is intelligent or conscious thought. When it comes to those inhibiting thoughts –the thoughts that tell you to steer clear of something — the mind is about as smart as a car alarm.

Put attention first, open up to the ugly bits too, and you can get back to a place, at least sometimes, where each moment is a special case.

***

Photos by Sally Mann

 

 

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{ 41 Comments }

EcoCatLady October 30, 2011 at 9:58 pm

You know, I’ve always been puzzled by this notion that childhood is somehow a time of happiness and bliss, because I remember it as a horrific and pretty much endless running of the gauntlet… one that I feel grateful to have survived. For the longest time I thought I was just cursed with a terrible childhood, but the older I get, the more I realize that mine simply lacked the veneer of normalcy that makes most people unable to see beyond the pretty pictures we are all taught to paint. In a funny way, I am very grateful for that.

Sally Mann’s photos are amazing BTW – I’ll have to check out more of her work!

David October 31, 2011 at 6:31 am

I did have that veneer of normalcy, but I still remember it as being mostly weird and difficult.

Betsy October 31, 2011 at 4:08 am

David, you have nailed it so well! Great post!

David October 31, 2011 at 6:32 am

Thanks Betsy :)

Rhonda October 31, 2011 at 7:41 am

thank you for inspiring me to capture more than just the kodak moments when photographing my son

David October 31, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Haha maybe Kodak’s 1980s ad campaign is to blame for all this. Or film in general. At least with digital photography we don’t have to save our 24 exposures only for the smiley moments.

LunaJune October 31, 2011 at 8:45 am

Thanks David.. I love the way life comes to show you things.. and the best thing about it is being open to letting it :~) adrift in a sea of memory I head off to my day…

Karen Kleiman October 31, 2011 at 9:32 am

David, I love the way you write. And think. Thank you for this.

David October 31, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Well thank you Karen

Bheem October 31, 2011 at 10:27 am

What a fantastic post David. Very well written. Though i had a normal childhood, i did find it a little traumatic and all rosey doey . But I do need to get back the wonder , possibilities and freedom to be myself i ad in my childhood.

David October 31, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I’m convinced that state is not as far away as it seems. Not decades away, like childhood is by now.

Trish Scott October 31, 2011 at 10:35 am

I could never figure out how people can say childhood is so wonderful. Don’t they have memories? And obviously we get to go through it all again when we have children. Who are these adults that missed it?

David October 31, 2011 at 5:51 pm

We certainly idealize it. What I remember most about being a child is wanting to grow up and not have anyone tell me what to do.

Trish Scott November 1, 2011 at 10:51 am

Which goes to show that children idealize adulthood too. Guess it’s the old grass is greener thing.

I didn’t idealize adulthood. I could see the adults were pretty messed up. I just hoped to allude those who would like to institutionalize me (as they did my Mother) for my “special” gifts.

Marie October 31, 2011 at 10:40 am

I’m another one that doesn’t agree with an “idyllic” version of childhood, and I really feel that this attitude is detrimental when it comes to parenting. I’ve written a short post myself jumping off from this one:
http://bling-ma.blogspot.com/2011/10/childhood-is-rough.html

David October 31, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Weird how everyone instantly knows childhood is no piece of cake, yet the prevailing cultural image of it is so squeaky clean. Maybe we can’t bear the thought of children suffering as a matter of course.

Janet November 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm

What you say, but about babies magnified x10. Being a baby looks really bloody difficult, and involves a lot of crying about weird shit, and a lot of behaviour that would have me calling the police if anyone other than a baby was doing it. But we as a society have this chocolate box image of babies as gentle and innocent. And I think it’s really bloody dangerous and leads to a lot of PND among other things.

Collin Ferry October 31, 2011 at 10:58 am

Awesome post. I did not expect to be reading about childhood this morning. Interestingly enough, I have a vivid memory of being a child and thinking, “Remember, when you’re an adult, that as a child you understood far more than you let on.” The world has been trying to get me to forget that, causing me to think, “surely I didn’t -really- know anything.”

This has been a wonderful reminder that I did have a unique understanding as a child; I had my face in the firehose of life.

David October 31, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Kids blow my mind with what they absorb. My 2-year-old nephew remembers everything. I don’t even remember what day it is. (Tuesday?)

Joanna May 2, 2013 at 4:41 am

“Remember, when you’re an adult, that as a child you understood far more than you let on.”

I remember thinking this as well. In fact, those are some of my most vivid memories of early childhood. I don’t have kids but many of my friends do. Often, we’ll be in the car and my friends will be talking about stuff that seems highly innapropriate for a child to hear. As if the child is still a baby, and cannot comprehend what is being said. I assume it’s because they have forgotten how much they were aware of when they were that age. Sometimes though, I wonder, if perhaps I was more aware of what was going on than most kids at such a young age.

Luey Anderson October 31, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Wow David..another thought provoking and heart knocking posting…I can see and relate myself to how you could be motivated to such depths of thought from Sally Mann’s photos, but am awed by your talent for expressing the complicated emotions and feelings evoked by the photographs of her kids. I am grateful I took the time from my adulthood to immerse myself in your article and the wonderful photographs, to reflect and travel back in time to my own childhood. Thank you!

David October 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Glad I could help you time travel this morning :)

Maria October 31, 2011 at 3:37 pm

The potency of all those feelings we had when we were in the single digits or the early double digits rise to the surface every time we recall a memory. I get physical reactions whenever I remember something intense from childhood. My face will get red or my throat tightens like I’m reliving the whole episode. We still are those little people, just more socialized.

David October 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Yeah, I’m not sure how old I was when I realized that adults aren’t distinctly different from children. There is no real “graduation” where you become an adult. I always felt like there would be. We’re still vulnerable and incompetent in a lot of ways, we just have a pretty firm idea of what to expect, which probably works against us as often as it helps.

Raj November 1, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Wonderful post. I think , we humans not only idealize our childhood but our whole life . No wonder we hear people especially old ones , talking about good old days.

Avi November 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Maybe this is why history seems so confusing and I never understood WWI back when I was a kid. History is what adults do.

edmond0925 November 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm

This is the first time I’ve been to this page. And thankfully, I did! I love the way you wrote this story and I love the pictures you posted. Keep up the good work David!

Jeff Mcintyre November 2, 2011 at 7:14 am

Great article David. I just can’t, for the life of me, decide if finding it is a blessing or a curse? On one hand, since first reading your article last week I seem to have this huge sense of guilt towards my 7 year old. The guilt stemming from the realization of how I have selfishly chosen to underestimate the harshness of his journey towards adulthood. On the other hand, I am trying to be optimistic about my chances of improving as a parent due to the new consciousness this article/discussion has brought me.

Very well written article on a topic I never tackled before David. Curse or blessing, thank you.

Jeff

David November 4, 2011 at 6:40 pm

There is definitely a deeper concern being suggested here, especially for parents, though I didn’t go into it. When we bring a new person into the world, we know that that person is going to live a life that — like any human life — contains vast amounts of suffering. Everyone has to go through the ringer though, there’s no other way to learn to protect yourself.

Sinth K November 2, 2011 at 9:59 am

This post is spot on. It also made me think about social networking sites and our growing need to post pictures of ourselves to let others know what we’re doing or to save the memory for later. What happened to using your memory? I went on a hike with a friend and he kept taking pictures to post later, mind you they looked great and other people thought so too. But when I look at those happy pictures later, I’ll just remember how I wasn’t really all that happy in the moment. Even though I was surrounded by beautiful forest, sunlight, and fresh air cause we stopped at every cool setting to take a photo. Sometimes photos just help to fade away bad memories rather than keep good ones.

David November 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm

I have lots of photos taken just like that :)

Jeffrey Willius November 2, 2011 at 11:54 am

David — As an inveterate observer — with a bit of an idealist slant — I found this post very interesting! I like your somewhat irreverent approach to wonder & will follow you with great interest (RSS). If you have a minute, I’d love to connect…

hunterX0506 November 3, 2011 at 7:13 am

I get physical reactions whenever I remember something intense from childhood. My face will get red or my throat tightens like I’m reliving the whole episode. | :P

Evelyn Duat November 3, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Every picture looks beautiful. I love the concept of this post and really admire your artistic side. It is somewhat very interesting and full of wonderful memories to look upon.

angelina November 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Wow! What an incredible post. Thank you so much for sharing this with the multitudes…including myself.

Larissa November 5, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I personally think that we should take Sally Mann as an example of how we should educate our children. Show them the truth! always!

Jenny the Pirate November 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm

We take pictures of the precious and beautiful moments of our children’s and grandchildren’s childhoods because we want to remember them that way. I don’t think it’s avoidance of the truth so much as putting the accent on the syllable or note that makes the most pleasing sound and evokes the most pleasant reaction. As mothers, the entirety of our children’s existence, bad or good, repulsive or pretty, success or epic fail, is forever etched on our hearts. We see the unattractive and we love it too, but there’s enough ugliness at hand at any given moment to put too fine a point on documenting it. That said, Ms. Mann’s pictures are extraordinary. I like to photograph my loved ones in a way that reveals their essence and my obvious devotion to them. I feel if I can do that, both they and the world will always know that despite their faults and the confusion that sometimes reigned in their hearts, they were loved unconditionally.

Angela November 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Childhood is a mine (or mind) field. Some make it through totally unscathed. Some make it out mangled and maimed. Some don’t make it out at all.
Very thought provoking article. Interesting insight. I look forward to reading more.

Southern November 23, 2011 at 5:53 pm

So far this is one of my favorite posts. I want to print it out and re-read it many times. I only recently discovered your blog–I don’t know how, probably StumbleUpon–but I keep coming back. Your posts are thought-provoking on such a level that it sometimes makes me wonder how I’ve managed to stumble through my own existence. Or perhaps it’s that you are able to put into words some of the things that many of us feel but never acknowledge–or don’t wish to acknowledge.
When we are young, we can’t wait to grow up. But being a grown-up sucks (Sometimes…like when the bills are due or you get thrown a wicked curve ball). Is this one of life’s paradoxes? We wish so hard to be grown up, but then spend the rest of our lives reliving our childhood.
When I look back at all the bits of my childhood, that’s what it seems like–much like a photograph. Memories that have faded to single, defining moments in time–good or bad. I often wish those memories were more firmly cemented in my mind–actual memories instead of snapshot images of things that happened to me.

Zozimus December 11, 2011 at 12:56 pm

What interesting photos, and what an insightful post. This is exactly my take on ‘Catcher’, and I think both Aldous Huxley and J. Krishnamurti would be fully in agreement. It’s pretty amazing to think of how much of the experience of ‘childhood’ is really just a concept, and one that has been invented by adults. This has some serious consequences. You might enjoy some posts at either my blog, http://natureofnurturing.wordpress.com/, or at Lenore Skenazy’s blog, called Free-Range Kids.

Mark February 13, 2012 at 10:59 am

Another home run, David. Great thinking and writing.

Here’s something that goes well with your piece: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaiCqsGgd0Q&feature=relmfu

It’s an 11-minute talk by Jane Fonda at TEDxWomen. She sees senior years as a new stage in which to rediscover what life really is. In your, and Sally Mann’s, terms a second (real) childhood. A time to reexamine the filters.

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