Earlier this year, I participated in an online course that explored vulnerability through the use of photographic storytelling. The course was facilitated by brilliant St. Louis photographer-poet, Henry Lohmeyer. I’d started following Henry on Instagram some while back and was struck by the poignancy of not only his black-and-white photos but also his beautiful reflections on them. I was unprepared, however, for the depth and power of his deceptively simple daily prompts. I was equally unprepared for the plunge into the most shadowy corners of my heart — and (dare I say it?) soul. As difficult as it was to dig around in that darkness, Henry’s course — and the beautiful community of supportive and encouraging artists who were sharing their own journeys — catalyzed the healing and release necessary for me to move toward the new life I am creating for myself and Bodhi.
This post is an expansion and further exploration of one I created for the course.
Follow Henry on Instagram: @henrylohmeyer
The day’s prompt didn’t shake me as much as those from other mornings. I read the email, listened to the audio clip. I mulled for hours about where I might find a suitable place to photograph something “Abandoned”: old buildings; distant farmlands; deserted city lots. I racked my brain, getting no closer to a destination, so I decided to just go out and drive for a while.
As I climbed into my truck, I glanced up and saw — really saw — that godforsaken red chair.
Mold streaked its fading red plastic, and weeds grew up through its slats on the little bit of overgrown garden where I’d discarded it three years ago. Over time, it became invisible to me, part of a deteriorating landscape I didn’t want to see because it reflected the slow, painful clenching of my heart. As I slowly climbed back out of the truck and slammed its door, I read reproach in the chair’s precarious tilt, in its sudden assertion of itself in the spotlight cast by an unexpected parting of the clouds. Fascinated and repulsed, I pulled my iPhone from my jacket pocket and went to work, capturing what was abandoned right here, outside my front door.
Reflections of Wholeness and Brokeness
In Arthurian legend, one of the major turning points in the story concerns the idea that “the land and the king are one.” The belief is far older and grislier than the tamer Arthurian romance version, where King Arthur is stricken with a deadly illness, and the land withers and dies with him, becoming a barren wasteland until he is healed.
I have both lived and died on this land. And it has lived and died with me.
Before I arrived, the property was all scrubby grass and tired trees. The house itself had been beautifully renovated from its previous decay, and the lot cleared of a thick wall of cedars that had acted as a screen for dark doings: insurance scams, drug trafficking, car theft. The surviving hardwoods almost sighed their relief with the changes, but the hard clay stubbornly held onto the roots of the past.
I almost immediately went about softening the soil with sand and compost, breaking beds from it in sweeping curves with a pickax and shovel. I sang as I dug in the soil and coaxed hand-seeded blooms from the earth. I tucked silvery-leafed plants among the tree roots and lacy ferns into the dappled shadows. I invited butterflies and hummingbirds to sip nectar from sun-warmed flowers. I practiced yoga and danced barefoot by candlelight on the covered porch, under flowering baskets I’d hung. I placed a red chair on the back deck from which I watched my dogs play in the thick, green grass. The land and I joyfully flourished together. It was a labor of love.
Then I experienced a love of a different kind. It was unhealthy, soul-stealing. Longing for the children I’d been putting off for too long and blinded by the lure of security, I married a man whom I believed would be my last chance. It was like living with an angry, tentacled creature. I found myself strangling, emotionally drained. Over time, I spent less and less time in my gardens, and they began to fade. Then I fell ill. The resulting surgeries included removing an ovary the doctors feared was cancerous. The pathology came back clear for cancer, but it was also clear that I would bear no children.
Throughout my illness, I begged my husband to leave me, leave my home. He worried about his “karma” — how it would look if he left while I was ill — even though he’d developed a deep disdain for me. I assured him I would heal more quickly in his absence. I was desperate. He was resolute. It was torture. I spent many hours tightly curled on the covered porch under the hanging baskets of flowers I no longer watered, letting my tears soak the dead, uncaring lumber while the living trees around me sagged.
It was months before he finally unwound himself from my life. I felt emptied out, disoriented. I buried a knife of shame deep into my heart. My mistakes were, in my mind, unforgivable.
Over the following years, as I withdrew into myself, into the pain and punishment of my choices, I let everything go. I gave up. I withered. And the gardens I’d worked so hard to bring to flower in this tough soil responded in kind. I’d abandoned not only them but all of the pleasure I’d felt in creating them, all of the pleasure I felt in creating at all. I didn’t know how I’d ever recover.
Then the final, crippling blow: The drainage system protecting my sweet little house’s foundation needed expensive repairs. The excavation would deeply scar the land. Worse, it would also destroy the back deck, where I loved to sip my morning tea from the red chair and listen to the birds sing as my dogs played. I removed everything from the deck and watched the construction crew shatter my tiny morning retreat space.
I set the red chair by the driveway and turned my back. I slipped into the fog of a depression that lasted three years.
The Gift: Reclaiming Peace
Healing is a journey. And healing a heart is an arduous one. I’ve worked hard to walk my path to healing and have come farther than I could have imagined only a few months ago. Like my land once had, the hard clay of my heart stubbornly held onto the roots of the past. Unexpectedly, photographing the red chair and connecting with the story it told helped me uncover many of the wounds still keeping me stuck and slowly dig them from those deep, dark recesses where they’d been clinging.
I’ll be leaving this place soon. Not abandoning it, just moving on. My last gift — an expression of gratitude to the home that so tenderly held me as I fought my way back from grief and depression — has been to coax blooms from the neglected soil, resurrect my gardens, and nurture my trees. I’ve made my home bright and beautiful again, filled it with love and laughter. I’ve had the back deck rebuilt and decorated it with potted flowers and trees. I’ve scrubbed the red chair clean and placed a pretty pillow on it. I sip my morning tea there, nestled in its arms while birds sing and my dog happily chases his ball.
I’m at peace with myself and — thanks, in part, to an abandoned red chair — the blameless land, too, is at peace once more.