party shoes

Valentine’s Day

“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” – Nan Goldin.

I have this quote in my reminder app so that it pops up every few months. I considered adding it to my website but worry it might come across as being morbid. (We spend so much time insisting we’re ecstatically happy.) But isn’t this in great part why we take so many photos of our kids?

The days are long but the years are short. 

Goldin gets right at the meat of making pictures of small children. When you take the photo, the child fills the room, she is so solid, so fully there that you can’t imagine her never not being the same way. (Of course you know this–and may fear it–but still you cannot imagine it.)

When you look at that photo even a few months later you can only be struck by the impossibility of sharing the room with that being as she was then–the heft of her body; the way her hair curled on her cheek, that week’s laughter, nonsense words, animal sounds, song bits–never to be heard in the same way again; the thing she wanted, needed.

I make audio recordings. I take photos. I try to burn moments into my brain. They slide away.

blue wools 

It’s Valentine’s Day. This morning I set out for my kids small dishes of gummy red cinnamon hearts and a couple of small wooden toys. My husband and I will celebrate with steaks and a special bottle of wine. But before I put the kids to bed, we will read a Valentine’s Day story and I will try to burn into my brain the feel of their soft cheeks.

My son painted his valentines this week.

F valentines 2014

They are beautiful and perfectly him–similar in style yet different from the ones he painted last year

#valentines

A post shared by Meghan Murphy (@neverknowdear) on

And the year before

my son's Valentines

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My two-year old daughter made her own this year.

watercolor valentines

Nan Goldin has a book of photos of children coming out this spring. She spoke about photographing children, “wild and magical, as if from another planet,” in a recent interview.

She also said this:

For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress…. I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul.

As my daughter tells me, “I wanna keep you.”

Bonus audio. My son singing Skidamarink for me and his dad. He already sounds younger than he is in my mind.

First day of kindergarten

walking backpack kindergarten

First Day K run-tych

 

stroller boy dad phone

 


first day K playground scene

 


boys on playground first day K

 

  first day K 8 friends

 

  sparkly sneaker envy first day school

 

first day K 10

I love most the progression: excitement, trepidation, near panic, joy, contentment, fashion choice dissection. Later, in the post-school photo: exuberance hurriedly filling a hole left by weeks of anticipation and anxiety.

I don’t remember the crush of a schoolyard entrance. I remember Mrs. Calvin’s pre-fab skirt and top outfit patterned with fish, a sunny spot on the rug, the confusing discovery that some kids were already reading.

It seems unfair: to send the kids inside while that hard blue sky waits and no one is on the swings. But maybe September is for parents. We can read the paper in the sun and pretend for a minute we are a dreamy students skipping class.

Remembering a lyrical ode to early September days I just googled “poem Auden September.”  It’s not like that at all. But I feel close to the poem, even if I forgot the details. We shared a vulnerable time after 9/11. And I guess it came to be because it’s now as September-ish as fair high-pressure skies and  seed pods about ready to burst. 

The poem does–with its gray talk of the State–tie into the start of school. I fret about how my son might be changed in by all-day kindergarten in a NYC public school with the ogre of high stakes testing, the lack of outside time, the missed chimerical nature walks we’d be having-–i.e., the crushing of his tender soul.

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I try to remember that I also went to school and came out as dreamy as ever.

The last stanza of “September 1, 1939,”[2] by W. H. Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Here’s to a soul-broadening, wonder-blossoming year of school.


  1. My mom might tell me this is yet another case of making up my own mythology. My husband calls it exaggerating. To me, it’s a better form of truth. Supposedly once I went missing from school. Maybe I walked to school and never made it, maybe I wandered out the front door. I was found calmly picking dandelions in the front lawn.  ↩
  2. For more on this poem, later renounced by Auden as “dishonest,” and the 9/11 attention it received check out this piece.  ↩

Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain big rock

It was my birthday and not too hot and we made it to Bear Mountain. I played Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues in the car three or more times and hoped for a better outcome.

I got shoved down ’n’ pushed around
All I could hear there was a screamin’ sound
Don’t remember one thing more
Just remember wakin’ up on a little shore
Head busted, stomach cracked
Feet splintered, I was bald, 
Quite lucky to be alive though

rock balancing

rock climbing shadows Bear Mountain

The kids’ birthdays are magical days. I’m not sure I’ve felt that way about my own birthday in a long time. But being outside with the family, in the city folk and cicada-saturated woods was almost as good as my dream birthday (beach to myself, low 80s, big fat Victorian novel, roast beef and mayo sandwich) I didn’t feel sorry for my aging self at all while I watched the kids scramble over rocks and marvel at the view. “Mountains!” Old mountains, soft and rumpled mountains, but mountains. The 17-year cicadas were already gone from the my parents’ and brothers’ yards in NJ, but they were still singing at Bear Mountain.

He’ll be 22 the next time these come around.

 

Bear Mountain hike portrait

My crab self (half crab, half twin, Cusp of Magic, it’s true) started off a little mopey about not being in a more secluded place, or maybe not being able to find the most perfectest path. But I also ended the day feeling quite lucky to be alive.

pensive hike break Bear Mountain
Bear Mountain 2 2

pink ribbon portrait Bear Mountain

wild pink rhododendron Bear Mountain

wildflower path Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain 3

Hansel and Gretel at summer’s end

pebbles path toddler Seaside Park

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I thought a lot about Hansel and Gretel while taking and editing these photos. We’d just gotten Cynthia Rylant’s version of the tale; it was in heavy rotation. [1]

Rylant’s version of Hansel and Gretel is dreamily illustrated by Jen Corace.

  

(As my dad said, these children may be starving but they have very nice clothes.) Her re-telling focuses not on the cruelty of the parents, the terrors of the woods or the sweet delights of the gingerbread house but on the self-reliance of the children.

It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves.

Hansel is the brains behind the pebbles and the best-laid-plans breadcrumbs. He  comforts and assures his sister. But there can be no version where Gretel doesn’t stuff the old witch into a hot oven. And Rylant’s Gretel isn’t the helpless sweetling who needs her brother to come up with all the ideas. She has agency and chutzpa, physical strength. The witch-stuffing is all her.

Rylant throws the children’s father a bone: he agreed to abandon them while under the step-mother’s spell–magical or romantic unspecified.  (I imagine that, as in Snow White, the mother became a “step-” as the tale ripened into a slightly less appalling modern version.)

Greek tragedy-scale familial relations aside, I worried  my son would get nervous if we ran out of bread or I took him and his sister into the woods. But he loves Hansel and Gretel in any of the iterations I’ve shared–morbid, cruel, “original” Grimm-esque [2] or cartoonish and candy-focused. And I now find myself thinking of the story when I watch my son and daughter together–-in nature or during any moment of deep play that leaves them cloistered in their own world.

I inscribed this line in the copy of Rylant’s Hansel and Gretel I gave my son on the first day of pre-k.

Take courage always.

Our day at Island Beach State Park (complete with Pecan Sandies that got all sandy, to my four-year old’s tickled fancy) was more of an late summer idyll than a terror-filled test of inner fortitude. But I loved seeing the children walk ahead and explore the golden-rod lined paths as I hung back with my camera, imagining them growing into big kids who will help each other find inner strength.


  1. My mother, a reading specialist who teaches a grad-level class about children’s books, introduced me to Newbery Medal winner and librarian Cynthia Rylant’s work. Thanks, ma! Rylant also wrote the Henry and Mudge stories, biographies of Margaret Wise Brown and E. B. White. More here.  ↩
  2. I got way into fairy tales in my olde semeotics days. Having children of fairy-tale reading age is an excuse to re-read and enjoy (and try to reactivate the dormant parts of my brain). We have Taschen’s Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which hews pretty closely to the “original” Grimm tales. Each story features gorgeous illustrations from a different, older edition. I am also slowly working my way through Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, an even more original version of each of the tales.  ↩