Lawrence and Forever

by Mark Hahn


Most people look forward to travel photography so they can take photos of new stuff. I take the same photos no matter where I go. In fact, I strive to take photos that are completely free of locality.

On my recent business trip to Tewksbury Massachusetts, I was struck by the distinctly New England landscape and neighborhoods. Whenever I got a break from work I headed out on the road just to see what was around me. I was somehow drawn to Lawrence. It is a small manufacturing town built along the Merrimack river. Like most New England manufacturing centers, it was built along a navigable river for ease of moving goods and supplies in and out. There was a time when barges were a vital form of transportation. Rail service soon augmented river transport. Rail lines still cut through the heart of Lawrence and trains continue to rumble by with regular frequency.

Lawrence is pretty. Well kept houses cover the wooded hills above the river valley. The remnants of past large scale manufacturing plants line the riverfront. These were the lifeblood of the city, but the large stately brick smokestacks that rise above the town are all now dormant. The brickwork is still impressive though, causing me to think of the men who built these structures high into the air — brick by brick — from primitive scaffolding.

A quick google search turns up the fact that over a third of the city’s population is living below the poverty line. While Lawrence is certainly struggling, it is hardly a dying city. The shopping centers are not dotted with empty spaces. There are no vacant houses. In the more run down areas, auto mechanics and body shops seem to be doing a brisk business.  Most of the empty manufacturing plants in the city center are being cleaned up and converted into art space and hipster lofts. I guess, this would probably annoy me if it was more successful, but it isn’t. Walking around the old part of town I get the sense that it is still a mixed economic and racial local community and not an isolated gentrified urban gated community. Often urban renewal projects end up dividing an established community into those who have and those who have not.

So while walking behind buildings and over bridges, I can’t help asking myself for the thousandth time what I’m doing it for. If I can find almost the same nooks and corners everywhere I go, what’s the point? What am I looking for?

The answer has to be that I’m looking for myself. Somehow, the way I see things helps me see myself for who I am in the world. Just as people are not able to see themselves when they look in the mirror, I cannot see myself, but I cannot help but to try. We are always searching for ourselves even if we don’t  know it. Why I think I’ll find myself in alleys, trash heaps, tumbled down brick structures and clingy vines is anyone’s guess, but these are the places that draw me in. I feel at home in these places. I find comfort in their familiarity.

The essence of a diamond cannot be seen in the rough. it just looks like a lump of matter. It takes a skilled craftsman to cut the diamond along the boundaries of its internal atomic bonds to reveal its intrinsic nature — the part that is perfect and beautiful. We can never see the atomic structure of a diamond with anything but an electron microscope (which doesn’t produce a particularly beautiful picture), but when the diamond is cut, we can see its inner sparkle as we examine it between our fingers. This is when we can catch a glimpse of what it is inside.

In a way, all we can do to define ourselves is to find the boundaries of our essential selves. There is no way to capture who we are in a piece of art or photograph. There is no way to pin ourselves down using words. The best we can hope for is to carve out the boundaries of what we are and what we are not. Somehow this can give a hint of what makes us “us” and not someone else. Somewhere in this is the spark that the right person might see when they look into our eyes. This is how we fall in love.

Love requires the suspension of logic — the suspension of definition. Love requires the suspension of everything that we cling to for support and security in life. We have to let go of the known and leap into what is not known.

On my way home, I am stuck sitting in the claustrophobic center seat in the airplane. I hear the men sitting behind me ordering one Jim Beam after another. They drink in silence. I remember how that first slug of whiskey burns your mouth and how once you get it down the alcohol warms every molecule in your body. I remember the feeling of hot cheeks and the split second of feeling alive because of the booze in my stomach. I held onto the promise that the booze would make everything ok , at least for the night. Getting through the night seems like all that matters sometimes. I remember thinking the booze would wash all my problems away.

I also remember how after a few, I’d have to find someone to hold onto just to help me hang onto myself. Everyone knows how drunks sound when they are talking past each other. They express love or hatred as if it hardly matters which was which, but we know that no matter what they say, it’s just passing time. They are just drunk. It’s like a nightmare or a dream. We may feel life or death intensity, but in the end we know we’ll wake up — somewhere. Dreams end and we wake up. Sometimes all we can do is pick up the pieces.

But these men never say a word. I guess they are shutting down. They have given up on finding themselves or finding anything else. They savored each burning sip of their whiskey and rely on that burn to feel alive.

I gave up on booze a long time ago and am still looking for myself in alleyways and empty parking lots. There is a lot to find when you start looking. When you’re really lucky, you can even find love — and kiss under a lone street light or in a drainage ditch.