This time of year brings with it not only politics, changing leaves, and a need for sweaters, but something which Jews of the world have for, literally, centuries abided by: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Its the one day of the year when you seek to right yourself with God, and try to atone for all the things you have done in the past year which, essentially, you know were wrong. But did anyway. It is a very moving couple of days, and you really force yourself to think about the things that are important. It’s less about what you did right in the last year than the things which you fell short of. Those are the ones which, push come to shove, you know you might have done differently, or handled another way. And in the wonderful spirit of the season, you are aware that while God will perhaps forgive you for the transgressions you might have committed against him, you are still liable for those that were committed against friends, family, strangers, business acquaintances, garage attendants. The point is, while you may make amends for the ‘big picture’ contraventions with Him, you still have to address with those you know, the things you might have done against them.
More than twenty years ago I became outraged when a local D.C. photographer, charged with running the Flying Short Course (the annual press photographers’ traveling seminar) went out of his way to send a very public note to the national headquarters that while there had been good paid attendance at the event, that one David Burnett had gotten in free, and hadn’t bothered to pay. I was incensed, for several reasons. One, he never bothered to pick the phone up and ask me to pay after the fact (I’d meant to, actually but the “payment desk” had closed by the time I arrived), or at least send me a letter first and give me a chance to respond. No, he just put it out there, as if “outting” me made him some kind of special guy. For the last twenty five years, I have basically shunned this guy. Not even a Hello. Nothing. As someone who has many acquaintances, and some number of friends, I find myself surprisingly undemanding about my friends. That is, I try and accept them for who they are, and short of a major character fault aimed my way, I just take them for who they are, not making excuses for them. My friends have all the faults that most people do, and maybe more. But I accept that. In this case, I took such personal umbrage that the anger has lasted for decades. And to what end? It’s not like I would ever be buddy-buddy with this guy, or that I regret not seeing him regularly to watch football. No, there were really no obvious ties except, perhaps, the fact that he was the one guy in Photography who I detested.
In the end, in a moment of clarity today, I just decided that enough was enough. He may not even know that I was so unfond of him. It’s possible. I’m sure he hasn’t lost any sleep over the fact that I’m not in touch with him. But then what has this brought to me? In the end, nothing. Nothing but a small amount of formerly seething rage. I suppose the half-life of rage is something that depends greatly on circumstance. However I have to say that I don’t really find anything wonderful or positive about holding the grudge against this guy. So, tomorrow, I will call him up, and try and explain my feelings of the last twenty years, and see if I can just set it straight. It may not mean much to him, but I think it will ease the burden on my soul by just the tiniest fraction.
At the Yikzor, or Memorial service this afternoon, there was another moment which, to contrary, shot right through me. It is a very touching moment for all present. You remember those who have passed away, and each person has their own story to tell. In fact as they recited the people and their relationships (Who has lost a father or mother; who has lost a friend, who stands for someone they didn’t even know... etc.) you realize that each person is bringing their own lifetime history of family and friends, in the most personal way possible. When the reader started the service, he began to quote from a service held, he said, 35 years ago, to the day. It was the Memorial Service for the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda died on September 23 of 1973, just weeks after a bloody coup d’etat in which Salvador Allende, the Socialist elected President of Chile, was killed. In the days following the coup, many hundreds more would disappear or be taken prisoner. I was a 26 year old photographer, who left New York for Santiago the night the news of the coup was received. Like all the other journalists forbidden entry to Chile that day, we waited in Buenos Aires for a week before we arranged a charter flight, the first press people to enter the country. I stayed for several weeks, was arrested a few times, and made some pictures which would become very well known, telling the story of the coup around the world. One of the more symbolic moments was following the death of Neruda, who had been hospitalized for leukemia.
His funeral, a long cortege traipsing slowly through Santiago for hours, became the final public moment for the Left in Chile. The presence of the international press corps kept the military junta from doing anything to disrupt the funeral, and in the end, it was an extremely solemn event. As the family and well wishers gathered at the cemetary, and brought the body into the mausoleum, hundreds of people packed together, tears were prevalent. I could barely see to focus my camera. Today, when the reader spoke of the memorial service, which took place a few days after the funeral, it took me back to that moment, and in an extremely personal way, it was as if I had just had a distant bookmark placed on my life.
Thirty five years ago, walking with the funeral cortege, my Leica bouncing on my chest, my Nikons on my shoulders. Walking for miles, past hundreds of Chilenos who stood and paid their respects. It all seems like only yesterday. Somehow, that number, 35, seems wholly unreal to me. That’s the kind of number that adults throw around, not kids like me. No, it must be a mistake.
Yet, when I do the math, it’s clear. I think I am finally beginning to understand what my parents and grandparents felt as they grew older, that sense of swiftness and rapidity that life hands us. We don’t really get to sit in the driver’s seat and decide how much gas to give the engine of life. It cooks along at the pace it wants, and we have to catch up. That’s why, I suppose, that there is something really worth taking away from those days when you have a realization: that some grudges and downers are just not worth holding on to. And you only realize the power of that forgiveness once you accept it.
The most amazing moment of all, as I sat with tears in my own eyes, was when I realized that for centuries, people have understood this. And yet it’s for each of us to discover on his or her own. There is no way you can be forced to do it. It’s simply something which, at the right time, you understand, and then you sit back in the pew, feeling the hard wood under your bottom, wood that doesn’t give an inch, and you say “gee, why didn’t I think of that sooner?” We’re just sayin.... David
as always, click on a photograph to see it full size