To be alive is to be in a constant state of devotion. Each day we wake up and choose which efforts and which values we cultivate. Time washes across our weeks and tells us there is such a thing as a future, and because we have seen a single tree bud once before we know all trees will bloom again. The trees, I guess, are pretty much on their own, but to be alive is to grow and to be human is to choose. So we wake up each day, a person with a memory and direction, going about our ways, devoting our waking hours to whatever people and whatever values and whatever work we have managed to find ourselves.
I think most of us want peace. It is definitely easy to take for granted that you are the absolute center of all your experiences. Everything you have ever seen or done would tell you that you are the center of the universe. The whole world happens inside your head.
And for me, this can be a very lonely place to be.
I long to get out of here, sick of hearing what this mad woman has to say 24-7. She’s always going on about Shakespeare, Brutalism, her mother, Judith Butler, geminis, and juul. Some days the racket can be overwhelming. Some days she drinks, some days she does not. Some days it is easy to see life as beautiful magic. These days are typically not in February in Chicago.
I’m not saying it matters what your daily life looks like — what your racket sounds like — as if privilege or weather had some mysterious arrangement with peace. To paraphrase the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, peace is not something we feel, it’s something we are. The anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner wrote that the capacity for peace and spiritual knowledge lies dormant within each of us. Devotion comes naturally — we cannot escape the regulation of our lives — what we lack is patience.
Imagine the world that unfolds when impatience is silenced, when we see all impatience as futile, when suddenly everyone and everything you once saw as in your way is seen as beautiful or mysterious or dignified.
“Every stirring of impatience paralyzes, even destroys, the higher faculties within us,” writes Steiner. To ask what we need to change about our environment or our outer life is the wrong question. In all our experiences — on the 5 o’clock El, at the hospital with grandma, at Lula on a Sunday morning, on the phone with Peoples Gas, another anniversary, another Friday night at work, another Bumble message, another parking ticket, another step in hormonal transition, another fight with your partner, another hour-long drive to the Ikea in Schaumburg to return a picture frame you didn’t realize was damaged until you got home but your phone keeps losing service and you’re on 294 headed to Indiana when you should be on 90 West and everyone at Ikea seems to have no clue how important and urgent your Saturday errands are — we must work to fill our consciousness with patience and seek to observe the complete and utter magic of life with which all experiences brim. Meanwhile, we must cultivate the feeling of reverence.
Every feeling of true devotion unfolded in the soul produces an inner strength or force that sooner or later leads to knowledge.
I work as a photographer and have been interested in pictures for as long as I can remember. When I was young I had a vision of glamour, a picture within a picture. Though I think all young Americans see life through a screen of glamour — the idea being that none of us have ever truly beheld it, and that the thickness of the screen has little correlation with actual wealth.
My version of glamour was a little more Vegas than rock and roll, but I fancied myself a kind of punk, nonetheless. The identities I worshipped smoked cigarettes and owned flats in Paris. In a vague way they were artists or writers. These were the people I hoped to become.
But I don’t work for a glossy magazine. I don’t own a flat in Paris. None of my friends are supermodels. I am not even in love. The categorical reality of life as an expensive grind is as real for me as anyone else, even if varied in texture. For the past three years, I’ve been shooting for an agency that sends me out to small businesses in the Midwest to take pictures for their social media accounts and websites. Lately it’s been a lot of pilates studios, hair salons, construction sites, auto-mechanics, and the odd martial arts or crossfit gym way out in some industrial park filled with dentists and military recruiting offices and manufacturers of small, obscure metal parts for kitchen sinks.
A few weeks ago I was sent to a hair salon out by the airport, situated next to a Dunkin Donuts and a Chase bank, with a parking lot unable to handle the capacity of semi-suburban America on a Saturday morning. People drove around the two unfathomably meager rows of parking in circles, eyes peeled, swerving mistakenly in, then out of the only free spots left, which were occupied by dirty snow. Needless to say, a symphony of honking scored the scene. Inside, I met the salon owner, a strong and sure woman, who later asked me if I was married, and, when I said no, told me this was a good thing and not to rush it. Then we talked shop.
The 9am crowd consists of little old ladies, getting the last of their white wisps permed up into something dignified, playing cards, reading magazines, and catching up. “And you know what they named the baby?” a woman rhetorically asked the lady painting her nails. “Clara!” The nail painter looked up at the client with the face of someone who just smelled shit. “I know, can you believe that?” said the woman. “She’s going to have to live with that her whole life.” Moments later one of the older regulars had an unplanned bowel movement and the whole back room filled with the smell. In the front of the salon, a man in a Bears sweatshirt walked in and asked for a manicure. While waiting, he flipped through one of those oversized books containing examples of hair styles seemingly designed only to appear in such literature. He noticed my camera and told me not to take a picture of this and pointed to the gun on his belt. The salon owner picked up the phone and dialed a regular she hadn’t seen in a few weeks who usually makes an appointment for this time every Saturday. “I wanted to check up on you, Mrs. S, we haven’t seen you at the salon in a while,” she said into the phone. Usually someone from the assisted living home takes her to the salon, the owner told me. It turned out Mrs. S had been sick the past week but was doing okay now. The owner took a breath of calm and showed the man with the gun to his chair.
The inquiry had nothing to do with lost business — it was a higher devotion that prompted such a call. And with so much going on all the time, it’s easy to skip those kinds of calls. It’s easy to feel like there is no such time, when the photographer is there and the salon is full and the parking lot is packed and the planes are flying overhead and everyone has money to make and somewhere to be. Add on top of that the project of trying to be somebody — and we all want to be somebody — and the impatience to get there fills our heads with all the wrong questions and prompts all the wrong calls. But the capacity for something higher lies within each of us.
If we can remember this, the impatience that was about to take root thus disappears, and the time we would otherwise have wasted in expressions of impatience can now be filled with some useful observation that we may make while we wait.
So I aspire to be nobody. The more sense of self I shed, the more honest I become in all my intentions and the more peaceful I feel. I wish only to sit still as patience upon a monument of peace. I pray for grace.
O. Kristina Pedersen writes and photographs in Chicago. Her most recent book, What Humble Place As This documents oil pride in rural Texas. Follow @kristinapicture on Instagram.