The Write Prescription: Picture perfect

A word is worth a thousand images.


When my younger daughter turned 12, she went to overnight camp for the first time. She had wanted to go since she was 9, each year being tempted by her classmates’ stories of new friends, independence, and mischief, but unable to break the tie between us.

Our goodbye was brief. She didn’t cry. My eyes only leaked until I saw her absence in the backseat of the car on the return trip home.

I started going to the Post Office the next day, although I knew the impossibility of a letter leaving Freedom, N.H., on a Monday morning and arriving on Martha’s Vineyard that afternoon. On Tuesday, I thought, Miracles can happen. Wednesday, I started to get eager. Thursday, I pouted. The letter didn’t arrive until Friday.

Dear Mama,

Camp is just OK. I am so homesick. I love you so much and miss you every minute. Please write to me soon.


No additional letters came for the next 10 days, and Nadia didn’t call on Sunday when campers were allowed to telephone home. Certainly, Nadia hadn’t been suffering the whole week, but I called the camp to be sure. They told me she was fine. But could they know fine as well as I did?

The camp posted daily pictures on its website, but I had refused to look at them. Camp was supposed to be Nadia’s experience, not mine. Still, 10 days without contact was too long. I didn’t want to know everything, just that Nadia was OK. So I went online, just for a quick peek.

The camp was in the middle of a color war. I found Nadia standing in a large group of kids. She looked stiff. Her head was bowed. Was she sad? Lonely? I found the next picture. This one was better. She was smiling into the camera with two other girls. But were they really her friends, or did the photographer just group them that way? Were the other girls leaning into each other just a bit, leaving a fraction more distance from Nadia? I couldn’t miss the picture of Nadia doing the long jump. The fingers of her hand reaching through space were so recognizable I felt them grab my heart. The last picture showed Nadia grimacing with the effort of winning tug-of-war for her team. Was she working too hard to have fun?

No matter how long I looked, I couldn’t find answers to my questions. The pictures told no story. Only when I picked Nadia up at the end of the season and she started a marathon monologue about the past three weeks did the pictures begin to thaw. She had been both OK and not OK.

This was 18 years ago, but the memory came back to me a couple of months ago when I went kayaking. Living on the Vineyard on a semi-year-round basis, I have discovered a love for documenting in pictures the life and vista of Stonewall, Quitsa, and Menemsha ponds. I don’t know if I have a good eye, or just take so many pictures that I’m bound to get a few good shots, but I posted the best ones on Instagram and Facebook, and loved the positive comments I got.

But on this particular day, when I got to the edge of the pond, I realized I didn’t have my camera. Great, I thought. This will be the day when I see something really special. And it was. An otter in Stonewall Pond, and a seal in Quitsa. While there was freedom in observing them without the interference of the lens, I couldn’t help but think how disappointed I was that I wouldn’t have any evidence to post.

Why? Because of the story I want the pictures to tell about me. That I am a sportsperson. That I want to commune with the natural world. That I am an early riser when I post pictures of sunrises. That I kayak in the dark when I post pictures of the remnants of the sunset. That I find beauty in a jellyfish bloom. I post pictures of myself swimming in December or of the beach in a blizzard. If you follow me, you may think I enjoy travel, that I can feel at home in multiple places. You might think I’m fun, or have a perfect marriage. Let’s be honest. I want you to be impressed by me.

But really, these are just snapshots, more a carefully selected pause in the narrative of my day than the narrative itself. Nowhere do I say the reason I kayak is to shake off the dread that wakes with me each morning. There are no pictures of what I look like — bed head, sometimes the clothes I slept in, the hat with earflaps in winter, the mittens beginning to unravel. You won’t know that at one time, I was so afraid of flying I didn’t go anywhere for five years. That if I’m away from my children for more than two weeks, I begin to lose my edges. You won’t see the blurry pictures caused by the tremor I sometimes have in my hands. Nor will I post pictures of my grandson, even though being a grandmother is another critical layer of who I am.

Right now, I am on a plane on the way to my son’s wedding. I will be posting pictures. We will all look happy, blissful, beautiful. A wedding, though, is not a portrait of a relationship. My son and his husband’s narrative requires words. It can’t be shown in pictures any more than Nadia’s experience at camp could be captured by a camera. 

I have a perfect life. I have an imperfect life. I am OK. I am not OK. I am not a picture. I am a story.