(mental) health food

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Health, so here’s a shot of some mental health food that Leslee, Dale, and I enjoyed during our trip to Montreal earlier this month. Everyone knows that chocolate is good for the soul…and by my reckoning, the berries in a fresh fruit tart provide enough nutritional value to justify a taste of decadence.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Poverty, so here’s a shot of discarded clothes and bedding in one of the quiet residential neighborhoods we explored in Montreal last weekend.

Poverty doesn’t seem to run rampant in Montreal: I remember seeing only a handful of beggars on the walk to Rue Prince Arthur on Saturday night, and both Dale and qB observed how happy and well-cultured Montreal children seem to be. But even if you don’t see homeless folk lounging on every street corner, the poor are always with us; it just seems that in the parts of Montreal we explored, poor folk kept a lower profile than the homeless in, say, New York or Boston.

That it’s not unheard of for folks (homeless or otherwise) to strew clothing and old mattresses in an otherwise tidy alley is apparent in this civic minded bit of graffiti, which reminds French-speakers that “Our alley is not a trash can; thank you for keeping it clean.”

Perhaps poverty seems less prevalent in Montreal than in cities such as New York and Boston because the Canadian courtesy quotient is noticeably higher.

    In addition to Dale’s and qB’s Montreal posts, be sure to check out Dave’s photo-illustrated take on the weekend.

Balconies seem to be as essential an element of residential Montreal as the bicycles often found upon them. As Leslee and I drove to our hotel in the city’s Latin Quarter on Friday afternoon, there were nearly as many bicycles as there were cars flooding the almost rush-hour streets. At one point on a particularly narrow one-way street, in fact, I was flustered to find bicyclists zooming on both sides of my car.

Balconies give downtown residents a place to park their bikes, and they also provide city-dwellers of all species a spot to hang out. Many of the balconies Leslee, Rachel, Dale, and I saw on a Sunday morning stroll through a quiet residential neighborhood had lush window boxes and lawn furniture, and at least one had a guard cat who coolly overlooked the premises. I imagine that after a day of biking through the city, it would be a relief to come home to a leafy seat on a balconied perch…and if you’re feline, a vantage point on high would provide ample bird-watching opportunities as well. On Sunday afternoon, at least, one feline bird-watcher turned people-watcher, checking out with cool blue eyes a quartet of curious bloggers ambling past.

    Today I’m off–in a car, not a bike–to Ohio, where I’m sure I’ll experience culture shock of a different sort. Have a great Wednesday, and I’ll “see” you from the flatlands!

Sometimes the best photographs happen by accident. This weekend in Montreal, I carried both digicam and pencam: the pencam for rainy shots, the digicam for sheltered ones. The entire weekend as I was snooping and snapping, though, I had no idea which if any of my pictures would turn out: there was no need for me to visit Montreal’s famed casino as I was by necessity engaging in my own sort of photographic gambling.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you well know my penchant for meta-photography, the art of snapping other photographers in the act. Since all but two of the bloggers I mingled with this weekend have digicams of their own, my time in Montreal was an infinitely self-referential web of photo-connections: one photographer photographing another photographing another. When I snapped a Saturday night pic of qB photographing raindrops on a reflective sidewalk cafe table, though, I had no idea that what I’d capture would be the ghost of Ms. Frizz.

Years ago on a trip to Sedona, Arizona, I saw photographers charging hefty fees for so-called aura photos: portraits of the spiritual nimbus that presumably hovers around each individual person. Although the photographers I saw advertised presumably possessed special photographic equipment to capture each subject’s individual essence, it occurs to me that blurred and badly lit images might do something similar. There is something about qB that is breezy and ethereal…and there’s something about a silhouetted shot of the Velveteen Rabbi that captures the numinous mystery of both human personhood and indwelling divinity.

Anyone who keeps even a remotely personal blog has necessarily grappled with the question of what to reveal and what to conceal: how much self-disclosure is too little, too much, or just right? This vexing question is made even thornier when you add blogger meet-ups to the mix: having spent a weekend with a bunch of other bloggers, which secrets should be shared and which sheltered? In some ways, an accidentally blurry picture of animated conversation offers a perfect compromise, offering curious viewers a glimpse of the kind of gestures and gesticulations even the most reticent among us were lured into revealing.

The last time I saw Dave, for example, he was mugging for the cameras…now, he’s behind a camera of his own. Photography is one way of diverting attention from oneself: the person taking a group photo is never present in that photo, and holding a camera in front of one’s face is a socially acceptable way of maintaining distance, the lens sheltering as much as it shows.

Usually, human interaction is a mutual phenomenon: we look at someone, and they look back. When you hold a viewfinder to your eye, though, that normally mutual gaze becomes one-sided: I as photographer can see you, but you as photographic subject can only see my lens. Digital cameras with photo screens make photography a bit more interactive: some new digicams, in fact, don’t even have viewfinders, forcing photographers to rely entirely upon lit digi-screens to compose shots. In an era where even cell phones are photo-enabled, it is possible to take pictures at literal arms’ length, holding one’s gadget out or up to snap photos of oneself or others.

Even bloggers without cameras have ways of mediating life through art. Who can resist a shot of Tom watching while Dale produces another work of napkin art? Neither Tom nor Dale had cameras with them this weekend: both of their blogs rely upon words rather than digi-pixels to create images. And yet regardless of the medium, I think we all are striving toward the same result: a glimpse of life as it happens, time slowed to the ticking of individual moments with images told like clicking prayer beads.

If blogging is a way of capturing personality–a way of sharing with virtual strangers how lived experience looks from my perspective, now–it makes sense to extend our definition of “personality” to include groups as well as individuals. Each of the bloggers I met in Montreal has her or his individual style and personality, and there’s a sort of synergism that happens when you juxtapose those personae. What do you get, for instance, when you throw vagabond Tom in a car for a long roadtrip with via negativa Dave, or when the mysterious Abdul-Walid goes teddy bear shopping with qB? These alluring questions can be answered only in person and in the moment; there’s a certain numinous There-ness that defies the limitations of word and image.

Ultimately, the point of meeting up with bloggers isn’t the stuff that can be blogged. Montreal wasn’t a means of stockpiling more (and more tantalizing) blog-fodder, although presumably we each drove, trained, and flew away with plenty of that. Instead, the point of Montreal’s meeting was the alluring and irresistible chance to put a face behind the blog. Have you imagined Cassandra‘s eyes? Well, I’ve seen them, and now I’ll shield them, the most precious part of any conversation being those parts which you’d never share as mere gossip.

For although I have no qualms about showing my face online, I’ll go to great effort to shield the faces of those who wish not to be seen, cropping and angling to capture a corner of a must-see umbrella while hiding the visage of its holder. There’s more to my favorite bloggers, after all, than their pretty faces, and the best parts of any meet-ups are those un-photographable, ineffable moments of which you later say, “You had to be there.” The slogan “Shit, it’s raining” perfectly describes a drizzly Saturday in Montreal, but it would have taken more than rain to dampen the spirits of those of us who’d gathered to show and tell.

    As my blog-buddies arrive home and get settled in from our whirlwind weekend, they’ve begun the gradual process of blogging the weekend’s festivities. Be sure to check out Rachel’s offering as well as Leslee’s two posts. Since we never agreed that “what happens in Montreal stays in Montreal,” the possibility for incriminating stories and photos is nearly limitless.

A decade or more ago, when I was married and living in Boston, my then-husband and I spent an impromptu weekend in Montreal, where he had occasionally traveled on business. I remember precisely three things from that weekend. First (and probably at my insistence), we walked around the Parc du Mont Royal, climbing the humble hill that gives Montreal its name. Second, we went to a Saturday night hockey game in which the at-home Canadiens were beaten by the visiting Senators. And third, we walked down Rue Ste. Catherine on Sunday morning while proper matrons in church-going finery walked past strip clubs displaying full-length posters touting the earthly delights within.

Although this weekend I didn’t stroll down Rue Ste. Catherine, that image of church-going women in dresses and heels clicking past life-sized strip-club posters remains indelibly etched in my memory, an emblem of how French Canadian sensibilities differ so greatly from the puritanical dualities we are saddled with here in the States. South of the Canadian border, we Americans see sex and spirit as being irrevocably separate…and we let loose to cheer on our sports teams only when we’re sloshingly soused. At that long-ago Saturday night hockey game, there were women who were similarly attired as those church-going ladies on Rue Ste. Catherine: although passionate about sport, the Canadian fans I observed a decade or more ago weren’t smashingly drunk like the hockey hooligans you’d encounter at a Boston Bruins game. In French Canada, it seemed, people knew how to indulge their appetites both appropriately and in moderation, not fearing the bodiliness of either sport or sexuality but allowing both body and spirit their proper expressions.

I hope, over time, to remember and cherish more than three things about this past weekend’s return to Montreal, this time husband-less and accompanied by a band of blog-friends. My bloggish appetite for word and image, I think, has awoken me over time to the writing on the wall: whereas a decade or more ago I didn’t dare admit the puritanical abstinences and ricocheting excesses that marked a marriage headed toward dissolution, these days I’ve honed myself both to look and see. Montreal and cities like it are no longer his destination, places I visited as a tag-along as if travel were the ultimate Gentlemen’s Club: this weekend I drove as Leslee navigated, and I saw Montreal streets as if for the first time, again.

Montreal is a city of paradoxes, an alluring mix of the sacred and the profane. What better place to meet in the flesh (either again or for the first time) some of the virtual strangers with whom I’ve felt spiritually akin over the years. A decade or more ago, I learned the hard way that sharing even a bed doesn’t preclude you from loneliness…how odd, then, to meet this weekend someone like Dale, a blogger with whom I’ve meditated across time zones for 100 days and then some.

What does it mean to “commune” with a person? Must you have sat together in the same place and at the same time? Or is it enough to have glimpsed glimmers of the same Self, or to be on the path toward such glimmerings? Christians sometimes talk of living amongst a “cloud of believers”: an intangible aura of persons past and present who support and watch over one’s way. If spirits can transcend space and time, why can’t living souls? Is friendship something that walls, distance, or even bodies can contain?

Saturday was unrelentingly rainy in Montreal, much as it was when I visited that girl in New York in October, where we toured Chelsea galleries with one of the Anonymous Ones I saw again this weekend. The Internet, they say, is a World-Wide Web of connections, but it would be wrong to say these connections are merely technological. Walking the rain-slicked streets of Vieux Montreal on Saturday with a barely contained band of rowdies–at times walking together, at times wandering apart–I was struck again at how easily the essence of individuality is communicated across the Internet ether, each of these blog-friends seeming exactly how I’d imagined them, only more so.

I’ve met enough virtual strangers by now to have thought long and deeply about the process: what is it that makes meeting a long-time blog-read seem so natural? There’s nothing, of course, intrinsically natural about typing words onto a screen and clicking “Send” or “Publish”…and yet as social creatures, we’re always reaching for both connection and mutual understanding. In meeting long-time blog-reads this weekend and in the past, it strikes me that these in-person relationships start in medias res: instead of frittering through the usual geting-to-know-you chitchat, you can settle in to talk about the things that truly matter, things that longtime friends or even spouses have never touched.

What I’ll remember from this weekend won’t be the things people said, for I’ve already read plenty of words from Beth, Dave, Tom, and the like. No, what I’ll remember from this weekend are the ephemeral images of memory: Dave’s ivory-billed woodpecker hat, the curl of qB‘s perpetual grin. Tom is taller than I’d imagined, and he was surprised at my shortness; Beth has a hitherto unsuspected ability to appear almost silently and to instill a palpable sense of calmness on a bustling Rue St. Denis coffee-shop, the sort of funky hang-out where I’ll now eternally imagine her.

On Sunday morning while the others went to church, Leslee, Dale, Rachel, and I played pagan, watching unleashed dogs cavorting with human and canine companions in the Parc Lafontaine. After a weekend of massive (and massively talkative) meet-ups, it felt appropriate to wander as a small group, there being little need for profound conversation. As I’ve said here before, “with a dear, true friend, there’s so much more to say than words can capture.” I’ve read enough writing on the virtual wall to know the best time in blogging is when the blogging stops: when presence replaces words, and you and several cherished others can dwell simply together in the place called Real Life.

At one point on Saturday, as I sat in an awning-sheltered cafe on a rainy street in old Montreal with Dave, Tom, Dale, Leslee, Rachel, qB, and several Anonymous Ones, I turned my camera to look behind us. How lonely these tables look without the laughter and smiles of virtual strangers turned dear friends.

I’m back from a weekend trip to Montreal for a high-energy meet-up with some long-time blogging buddies. I have plenty of stories and images to share, but right now I want to spend some quality time with my own bed and pillow. So for now, the rest of the story will wait until…

    If you look closely, you can see the bill of my white baseball cap reflected in this cafe window as I stood next to Leslee with her blue umbrella. It seems I can take reflective photos without even trying…