Elegance in an Orange

In first grade, I developed a habit of writing my sentences in lower case letters. My teacher encouraged me to stop, but for some reason, I did not for a long time. Maybe I just wanted to stand out.

I did not think there was a “right” way to express myself. If self-expression comes from within, how could someone else tell me how to correctly portray my own voice or vision?

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My parents have always told me that passion plus persistence equals power. To me, that means success will come only if I chase what I love fervently. What I love most is to create with words and with photographs. Whether I am working through a difficult paragraph for my column in our school newspaper, or lying on my belly near the Chesapeake Bay to catch an osprey with my Canon, I am centered and happy.

I am at peace.

I have been soothed by the calm of nature since I was a toddler.

As soon as I was big enough to move furniture, I placed my bed so that it faced the window. We live in the woods on the Severn River, and I wanted to look out at the water and the open sky. My father would be the last to kiss me good night, and I would lie awake, hoping to witness something majestic. I was not like my twin brother—older by eleven minutes—who was terrified of the dark when he was young and kept his big light on while he slept. I reveled in the unknown, the mystery lurking beyond my bedroom walls.

I saw the black of night bursting with fireflies, and the trees fluttering their fingers with the whirls of the wind. I looked for words and shapes and faces in the leaves as they jingled. I counted the flashes of heat lightning and airplanes bound for nearby Baltimore. Perched on my knees in bed, my nose pressed to the glass, I believed that anything was possible, even dangling on the Big Dipper.

I was filled with longing—and it never left me. I wanted to explore the vast beauty of the outdoors and share that vision with everyone. By third grade, I would spend hours in the sun and dirt in my backyard, with my brow fixed to the viewfinder of my camera. I used these pictures to illustrate my first book, a thirteen-page piece of non-fiction called me. Though my ideas were naive, I felt empowered by the act of signing my work with my own byline. As Howard Roark is inspired by his towering buildings in The Fountainhead, I believed there were no limits to who I could be and how high I could reach.

My writing and photographs chronicle the nostalgic fragments of my past, the elegance I once noticed in a half-peeled orange or the chipped green paint on an Adirondack chair long ago. Art immortalizes the forgotten colors and details of this one life.
My favorite piece of writing and my favorite photograph were inspired by the same place. I was in Leucadia, California, climbing down rickety stairs set into a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Far below, two people that looked like dots were running into the water. All I could see was their silhouettes racing after the sun—a perfect moment, a perfect photograph. This couple on a barren beach also moved me to compose an essay on the sweetness of being alone. The ocean was born for me that day, and I could not wait to show everybody why.

As I grow older, I realize the pictures I take and the stories I write have little to do with the things I see and everything to do with the way I see them.

Perhaps I just want to stand out like I did as the child who wrote in lower case letters. Or maybe, at the age of seventeen, I know the same thing I realized at ten; self-expression with words and with pictures is the most powerful tool of all, if my vision is focused and true.

Today, I am still the artist and the naturalist who moved his bed near the window and saw poetry and faces in the leaves. Today, I understand what author Wallace Stegner meant when he said: “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” At the water’s edge, barefoot in the grass, there is an infinite universe for me to observe, analyze, and capture.

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