Eleven days til Christmas and I feel like a tightrope walker, perched on the rope of duty, putting one foot in front of the other in an effort to make it through the season without falling. It would be so easy to just give up and drop. But I keep my toes wrapped tightly to the wire, curled so tight they hurt. I don’t look down at the empty spot where a Christmas tree should be, or on the other side of the room where stockings should have been hung with care; I don’t think of the unbaked cookies or unpurchased presents, I just keep my eyes focused on the line that leads me towards the door because today is the day of the puppet show. I need to just put the whole circus that Christmas has become out of my mind and focus.
I am a juggler. I juggle children and cameras and try not to drop any of them. Children get dropped far too often in this world. They are dropped at daycares, dropped outside schools, dropped in front of television sets. They are told not to drop things. Like cameras.
Cameras are easier to juggle than children. It’s also much easier to tell whether you’ve broken one or not when they’re dropped. You can neglect your camera, swear at it and call it bad names without damaging it. You can even call it stupid. No matter how much you abuse it, your camera won’t suddenly sneak out of the house without you knowing only to turn up at an elementary school one day wearing a utility vest weighed down with ammunition because it was dropped.
I am a dancer. I began as a child. I never danced on a tightrope but I know all about sore toes. Dancing in pointe shoes is a lot like walking with curled toes. You must always look as if you feel no pain. “Just keep smiling,” Miss Linda would tell us each week as we stepped up to the barre, “Make it look effortless.”
I hop into my car trying not to think of the wish lists for presents, the Christmas cards I still haven’t written, the turkey that needs to be carted home and then stuffed, the letters Santa writes us all each year – all the things I do each year to make Christmas magical. Not even Miss Linda could make this look effortless.
I am a photographer. Like many in my profession, I joke about shooting people. “I have to go shoot some dancers today,” I’d say as I juggled my camera equipment and backdrops into the car, dropped my son at school and raced to the dance studio to shoot photographs of dancers with sore toes.
But that all changed the day of the puppet show.
Of all the jobs I’ve ever been hired to shoot, my favorite was Cirque du Soleil. With my background in photographing dancers and theatre, when the circus came to town, I was the logical choice to send. Cirque ended up purchasing some of my photos and during their last visit, they asked to buy my photos of the girl who performed the aerial routine on the silk strands.
Much like a puppet, the young woman in the silks’ life hung by the threads that tumbled from the rafters, her strands the colour of a ripe pomegranate and I realized I was holding my breath as I shot her performance, marveling at how she could suspend herself in mid-air just by hooking her toes into the silk threads. For the grand finale, she climbed all the way up the strand like a spider, wrapped herself up like its prey, then came spiraling down to hang there, lifeless, until a clown came out and carried her off. As I lowered my camera, I had tears rolling down my cheeks and when I downloaded the photos later that evening, every hair stood on end as I marveled at the images of the girl in red, unraveling.
In summer, I am a lion tamer. I line people up and pose them, often wishing I had a chair and whip to get them in line. Shooting weddings and family portraits is a lot like herding kittens. I watch them fighting and arguing as I try to control their unruly manners and unruly hair. Sometimes they’re still arguing after I’ve stepped behind my camera and start to shoot. Then I do my best to coax them into the position of what a perfect family should look like. It’s my job to make them look good but sometimes, I’ll take photos when their faces are all screwed up in anger or they’ve got their arms crossed in body language that an animal trainer learns to read, capturing their stubbornness before they finally yield and do as I say. And sometimes, when I really don’t like the people, I’ll include one or two of these shots in their package that show how ugly they can be.
Photographs rarely tell the truth. Paul Simon once wrote how Kodachrome ‘makes you think all the world was a sunny day, oh yeah.’ He was onto something. Family photos are like that. They lie like most history books – they only tell the part side of the story people want you to know.
I am an illusionist. When I shoot the ballet dancers, it’s my job to make their feats (and feet) look effortless and perfect. For every brilliant photo the ballet company puts on a poster or their website, another one hundred or more images end up being deleted – deleted because of a sickled foot, an overstretched neck, a toe that didn’t curl into a sharp enough point (“Point those toes,” Miss Linda would yell!). That’s why I like to arrive early at the studio if I can, to shoot candid photos while the dancers warm up. One of my favorite shots ever is one I took of Raelynn’s feet. She had just sat down on the floor, her dirty and worn pointe shoes right beside her and had just started to bandage her toes. That picture, to me, tells the truth.
Of all the subjects I get to shoot, I love to photograph children and babies the most. They’re always honest. If they don’t want their picture taken, they let you know. You don’t need to juggle them into position or watch as they force happiness out like a bagpipe. They don’t need to have pointed toes. Their true emotions shine through their eyes. Young children can innocently stare straight into my lens completely oblivious to what will happen when I push the plunger. I wonder if a hunter sees these same emotions in the eyes of a doe when he lines up his shot? Did the man in Newton?
I am the fat lady. At least that’s how I feel today. Everywhere I turn at this time of year there’s more and more chocolate. Clients drop off boxes of them and I have no self-control. Then there’s the other stuff. Shortbreads. Eggnogg. Fruitcake that is nowhere near as healthy or good for you as its name suggests. And so in effort to still be able to squeeze into my once dancer-sized dresses, I am on a fruit diet – and not of the cake variety – and have begun eating a pomegranate for breakfast these days.
Did you know the French word for pomegranate is grenade? It often looks like a grenade has gone off in my kitchen by the time I’ve finished peeling and plucking out all the tiny blood red coloured arils. I ate one for breakfast on the morning of the puppet show. I even joked about it with my son as I packed up his lunch for the day saying, “Hey, looks like someone was shot in here!”
I am a contortionist. I went to yoga this morning. Even though I should have gone Christmas shopping or stayed home to bake, I hopped into the car and drove to yoga because there was just enough time to squeeze in a class before I had to be at the puppet show. As I worked my way through the twenty-six Bikram postures, I did my very best Standing Bow. My toes clenched into my matt and turned white as I balanced on one leg while pulling the other up behind my head. I imagined I was the girl in the pomegranate coloured silk, dangling like a puppet from the sky, that my foot could go up as effortlessly as hers appeared to during her routine. As I balanced, I was not thinking of my son or any of the children in the world who had been dropped off by their mothers in schools across North America or in places like Connecticut. I didn’t think about my camera abandoned and alone in my car unsupervised. I knew it would wait for me, patiently, and that it was fully charged and ready to go shoot the job I’d been hired to do. A room full of happy children, dreaming of Christmas would be waiting for us at the library when we arrived, waiting for the puppet show to start. As I packed up my yoga gear at the end of class and headed out of the studio, I laughed and said, “I’m off to shoot some …”
I was the only adult to walk into the downtown Kelowna library without a child that day. Nobody really noticed as I slipped in through the doors, carrying my big bag full of equipment. I slowly began to unzip it, as quietly as I could so as not to disturb anyone. One or two parents looked over but nobody questioned my presence. I could have been anyone. I could have had anything at all in my bag.
I pulled out my camera and crept carefully through the bodies on the floor and began taking shots randomly, focusing in on the unsuspecting children who were waiting for the puppet show to start. Over and over I focused, pushed the plunger and shot frame after frame – their eyes wide with expectation.
As the lights went down, the room got quiet and the puppets began descending on wires like the girl in the silks. The librarians were careful not to drop any of the puppets that kicked and spun like contortionists across the stage to the delighted squeals of the children watching this beautiful illusion. I packed my equipment back into my camera bag and snuck out the side door.
I am the ringmaster. Back at home I orchestrate the washing machine and dryer, I put away toys, fold clothes and begin to clean up the breakfast mess. I notice the pomegranate juice still splattered on the walls and begin to scrub it off to the beat of the song on the radio. But the music ends and the news comes on.
My toes begin to curl.
Police are on a hunt for someone who has just shot twenty innocent children and six adults. At the same time I’d been shooting photos of children in the Kelowna library, someone else was shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But he wasn’t using a Nikon.
I plug my camera into my computer and began to download the photos I’d just taken, watching as innocent faces of children and the smiles of the librarians pop up onto my screen one after another while at the same time, somewhere in Newton, someone else is uploading photos of twenty children and six teachers who died. I thought of my Christmas list and all the Christmas lists in Newton. I thought of the final words I’d said before leaving the yoga studio and felt my feet slip from the tightrope wire.