Altered States in America

(7-minute read OR listen to the audio version HERE)

IN THE EARLY SUMMER OF 1980 I was eleven years old. Two years prior, my parents had moved my brothers and me into the forest.

Literally.

From South Philadelphia to South Jersey, out of a row home and into an attractive, split-level house on an acre of land in a brand new development called McKendimen Woods. They were building a house for us.

I was not excited to move. There was a myriad of reasons, but it was something about having a brand new home that felt weird to me. It’s only now that I’m able to articulate what I felt about that.

We would be the first people to ever live there. Nothing would have happened in the confines of those walls that hadn’t happen to us.

No too-young, just-married bride would have ever sat up late and cried about her new husband being called away to fight the Japanese halfway around the world.

No one had ever chased his sister from one bedroom to the other and back again in pursuit of a Richie Ashburn baseball card because he wouldn’t give her the bubble gum, so she snatched the card right out of his hand and made a run for it.

There were no lingering spirits from families past in our house. We were each other’s ghosts.

At the time we moved in, the development was all new construction; they were literally cutting down forest, plowing roads, marking off plots and putting up one solidly middle-class dream home after another, as long as the money held out.

I don’t know if the money stalled or what happened, but our street was as far back in that little forest as you could go for a little while there.

We were a sort of suburban pioneer family, literally steps away from the natural world—a place not yet settled by humankind. My parents carved out a beautiful home for my brothers and me, among the oak and pine trees of the Pine Barrens when the world first started to fall apart.        

There’s a way they world looks to us; I mean, literally how we see the world.

For example, you know you’re home because you see your house and you remember that’s what your house looked like when you last saw it.

On an early summer evening in 1980, my brothers and I—along with some neighborhood children probably—were playing on our street and around our house. We often played a game called “Manhunt,” a kind of “Hide and Go Seek” meets “Capture the Flag.” That’s probably what we were doing.

I remember at one point, for whatever reason I happened to be there, standing at the end of Oak Drive, looking down the block at my home, my whole world at the time. What I saw looked different than it had ever looked before.

It’s hard to describe—and I’ve only tried to explain it two or three times in my life—but I recognized everything I was looking at (the Hayes’ house over here, the Gardner’s over there). 

I knew what I was looking at, but I was seeing it differently.  The colors of the leaves and the grass were a richer, fuller green, than I had seen before. The dirt was a warmer brown, the way soil looks after a light, afternoon rain. Maybe that’s what had happened earlier in the day; I don’t remember. 

What I remember most is that I was aware of the difference and took it in as something beautiful. My remembrance is that the particular way of seeing the world I had been given lasted for the rest of the evening and until I went to sleep that night. It was likely gone by morning. 

I also remember not being afraid this way of seeing would go away, that I would never *get it back* again. I just lived in it and felt the joy of it as it was happening. 

No need for explanation (How is this possible? Is it the light? It’s probably the light, right?). It didn’t even come up then. 

No need to wonder if I was deserving or not (Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…A lot. Probably just pre-teen boy stuff but still…). I never thought about that at the time. 

I never felt I was *taking advantage* of anyone. The world physically looked different and it was beautiful and I was grateful and that’s that.  

I never—and still have not to this day—attached a meaning to it. I don’t think there was an explicit lesson to be taken from the experience one way or the other, but I do believe it to be the first mystical experience of my life. I didn’t read anything into it. I didn’t question why? or ask, what now? I just saw that my world was beautiful at that very moment to me. 

Perhaps I could have learned a lesson about living in the moment from that experience some forty years ago (there is no way I just typed “forty years ago!!”). I constantly find myself wanting to *lean ahead* into the moment to come, believing when that moment arrives, all will be well, all will make sense, all will be as I wish it to be.

When I look through the lens of my camera, I see the world as it is at that exact moment. It will never look exactly that way again. 

That’s why I share my photos—so others can see what I saw. That’s the point, I think. We share how we see the world with others and others share how they see the world with us. I think that’s how it should be…

I’m interested in how you see the world and what you’re looking at. 

That’s reason enough for sticking around awhile. 

2 thoughts on “Altered States in America”

  1. I can really empathize with the way you feel when you share photos. I also feel like you’re sharing your world as you see it for that very moment, and for some reason, it was important enough to take the photo to begin with. It’s frustrating to me when I MISS a photo. I either couldn’t get the focus right, or the depth or the color… I am particularly “haunted” by pictures I took at Shiloh (the battlefield in TN) and wound up deleting the pictures off of my SD card before I even ever got to look at them. One in particular was a deer in a misty field with a rainbow behind it. I feel like I’ll never see, let alone capture, that again. Thanks for this little read. I enjoyed it.

    Like

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