Endings, Beginnings, My Brother, and Hindsight

One of the indicators of springtime in a college town like Corvallis is that every time I drive into town I can spot a graduate in a cap and gown posing by the Oregon State University sign by Reser Stadium with a pro photographer flashing away. Like tulips in this region, graduates pop up in the spring, just before departing in late May/early June. It's a significant moment of transformation, and it makes sense to want to capture it in images.

Graduation for me was a time of mild inner turmoil. I suppose that is true for most graduates, maybe all of them. My turmoil had to do, I think, with sensing a greater change, a coming departure from family and home. That departure was important and necessary for me, but would also end up lasting longer than I would have liked in retrospect.

I loved the land where I lived during my high school years in rural Vermont. I still love the rolling, carpeted mountains, the back roads, and the ease of finding quiet. I even love each of the region’s six seasons. I didn’t always love the life I lived there, though. Some family drama is closely associated with those years and that place. Still, I didn’t go very far away to continue my education at college. I stayed in the state, and drove a mere two and a half hours home for holidays. 

I knew I needed to distance myself from both Vermont and my family there, though, and when I was deciding where to go for school I hadn’t had the courage to really put the miles between us. College graduation was forcing my hand and I knew this at some level, which is probably why it was so easy for one of my best friends to convince me to move to Seattle. It was there in the Pacific Northwest that I certainly got the distance I needed, as well as the space to start defining myself, FOR myself. It was there that I would decide to pursue teaching, earn my Masters in a field that would employ me for two lengthy stints in the classroom. It was there I pursued nationally competitive Ultimate frisbee, a pursuit and community that would teach me much wisdom of personal growth and inter-relating. It was there that I fell in and out of love, hurt some hearts, and made lifelong friends. 

During those weeks leading up to and including graduation, though, I didn’t have a vision for this future. I was just unsettled by what I knew I was leaving behind. I had a disquieting sense that I had left much unfinished, and had squandered opportunities. I think I was starting to sense the curve of the earth, in a way - detecting this moment as a pivot point where events in life would accelerate, and a youth's perception of limitless possibilities would begin to narrow. 

There is one photograph of this moment, this graduation from one world to another. It is a photograph of myself and my brother, and it is framed on a bookshelf at my father's house. I was the graduate at the time, of course, so I’m wearing the cap. It’s a posed photo, so unless you knew me or my brother personally it wouldn’t be a very interesting image. We’re both looking at the camera. We both have longer hair - his curly and pulled back in a casual ponytail, mine wavy and tucked under the cap. Nice looking boys, but not much is really going on in this frame. What it represents to me, though, is profound because that photograph captures my brother and I at the same place and the same time - something which would happen only rarely over the next 25 years. 

We were close growing up, unusually so for brothers three and a half years apart. I can only recall two arguments we ever had, and the second wasn’t an argument, just a time when he was upset with me. We worked it out pretty quickly. But starting right around the time of that photo, we were never geographically near each other. I would leave for Seattle in a couple of weeks, he would return to school in Georgia. Four years after that I would move back to New England and begin teaching outside of Boston, my brother would finish out his graduate program in Atlanta and then move to Oregon and start a family. And there we stayed for two more decades. I made it out to the Pacific Northwest once for his wedding. He came east for mine, and a few other times besides. Life, for me at least, became complex and consuming and this didn’t always make it easy to spend time with me. When we did talk it was simple and effortless to slip into our rhythms together in conversation. But while we remained close, we didn’t see each other much. 

So that photo of the two of us smiling at the camera - standing together on what was known around campus as Battell Beach, just after the graduation ceremony - represents to me a moment when we each had a lifetime ahead of us. Unbeknownst to us both, we would head in different directions in the years following, and it would be many years and more than a few missed opportunities before our paths would cross significantly again.

The photos I WISH I had from graduation would also include my brother, but I would have had him come up a week earlier. I would have shown him around the small Vermont town that had been my home for four and a half years. We would have boated on the creek that ran down from the pass, eaten at my favorite restaurants, and I would have snuck him into the dining halls. I would have taken him to the last, casual Ultimate games with my closest friends on campus, and stayed up late watching and talking about our favorite movies. We would have gotten sandwiches from Noonies and eaten them by Otter Creek, and we would have talked about what was next for each of us, maybe planned slash dreamed about a trip together to the Canadian Rockies or the coasts of South America. I would want pictures of me and my brother, together, being…well, brothers. In particular, I would have wanted them from this moment of endings and beginnings that is a graduation. 

Would I have had the foresight to bring a photographer on those excursions? I doubt it. Could I have afforded to pay a pro to shadow us and capture those moments so important to me now? Nope. Would it have been worth everything I couldn’t have afforded at the time to have those photos now? Of course. 

There’s probably a profound insight to be made about the fact that I am now living in the same town as my brother, connecting with his family, and making a living as the photographer I didn’t have at graduation. Maybe that insight will come to me next time I drive by the graduates getting their photos taken by the stadium on my way into town.