My Many Valentines
When my second child was born, I had a bit of a feminist identity crisis while working on her baby book. In the “All About My Parents” section, you were supposed to list hobbies. Doing it for my husband was easy: chess, biking, running, and on and on. And for me? I was hard pressed to come up with anything. I love to read and write, and I edited for Exponent, but somehow it felt lame to put those as hobbies. The town’s recreation and enrichment pamphlet had just come out so I flipped through it to see if I could find a suitable hobby in 6 one-hour lessons or less. I had no desire to learn Italian, or arrange flowers, but the photography class I could do. And behold a hobby was born.
Shortly thereafter I started taking senior pictures for the kids in our ward. And the strangest thing happened: I fell in love. Every time I took someone’s pictures, I came away feeling like they were the most beautiful person in the world. Some kind of magic happens after just a few minutes of concentrating on a face. I stop seeing the zits or the too heavy eyeliner and everything about them becomes dear to me. The infatuation would continue on the computer as I cropped or tweaked lighting or photoshopped away a chicken pock scar. I just saw such beauty. Most of these kids are grown now but when they visit our ward or I catch a glimpse of them on Facebook, I smile and think of them fondly like I might a summer romance. It’s not just me. Psychologists have documented the connection between staring into someone’s eyes and falling in love. But it’s more than psychology too.
At some point along the way I realized what was happening wasn’t magic, but spirit. As I looked upon their faces, eager to capture some of their essence, I was seeing them as God sees them. How could they not be beautiful? Over the years this phenomenon has continued as I’ve taken pictures. But let me note that it is much more likely to occur when I photograph individuals or couples. Taking family photos is as painful to me as it is for the squirming toddlers being forced to smile. There is no love there.
If I thought only photography could give me Divine Eyes I was wrong. Last summer I went to Botswana to collect oral histories from women of faith, mostly Mormon women. Twenty minutes into my first interview, I felt myself “falling in love” with her. As she told her story, I could see her strength, feel her faith, and her face glowed with something I can only call radiance. By the time the interview was over, not only did I love her, I knew that our Heavenly Parents loved her. And wanted me to share that with her. Once the recorder was off, I bore testimony to her that she was loved. That she was special. That God was so proud of her and that she was a pioneer among her people. The words flowed from me and my heart burned with the truth that I shared with that amazing woman. She cried. I cried. We both knew that she mattered.
Over the next two weeks I interviewed several more women. And one by one, story by story, they found their way into my heart. And as I saw them as God saw them, I verbally reflected that love back to them. They then, briefly, saw themselves as God does. And that is transformative. My friend and fellow interviewer Caroline said to me one day, “I’ve seen these women coming out of your interviews, crying but happy. It’s like they’ve changed. You doing therapy? What on earth is going on in there?!”
And like the NYT story about the psychologist who came up with the 36 questions that encourage intimacy and create connection, the interview guidelines we were given, mostly the brainchild of Caroline, achieved much the same goals. For example, one question was, tell about a time when you had to make a hard decision. That often elicited a very painful response. There were stories of cheating husbands, abusive boyfriends, HIV diagnoses, faith crises. The next question was, tell about a time when you think you received revelation. In every instance the women tied that back to the hard time, and were able to see how the Lord had guided them through. They reflected on their own survival instincts and how they had come so far and were better women now. Sometimes they had already made that connection. But for some women, it was only as they spoke that they believed they were guided by the Divine. It was as if they heard the Lord say, “You matter to me.” The interviews invariably started out with the women wondering why I’d want to interview them, as if they had nothing of consequence to share. And by the end, the subject and the interviewer knew how important they were. It transformed us both.
Before I left them, I asked if I could take their picture. Because when you fall in love with someone, you want to return to their beauty again and again.