Yes, you read that right.
It struck me when I was in the shower, that sacred thinking time when enlightenment visits. As I rinsed my hair I recalled the many conversations I had with others about my short career in professional wrestling. Most of them involved the other person assuredly telling me that professional wrestling wasn’t real and therefore didn’t count.
It didn’t count? On what scorecard?
This may be the time you’d like me to back up and fill in the gaping hole about how a professional wrestler became a grief photographer. That would take a while, so I’ll say that I had the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do and believed was out of my reach. I didn’t want to wonder what it would have been like if I had the courage to try. I did it and I loved, and I learned a lot about myself.
I learned, for example, that my Greco Roman (the “real” wrestling in the Olympics and on smelly high school and university mats worldwide) experience didn’t help me as much as I thought it would. I learned that the “fake” wrestling required strength, stamina, partnership, and agility in ways I didn’t anticipate. The outcomes of matches were planned, sure. The punches aren’t like they are in boxing, and yet they aren’t totally benign. Picking up and tossing a person of any size is a big task. Being tossed hurts.
I know that because I've been there. I’ve nursed the injuries.
Grief is a lot like that. The outcome in one case is certain. Both involve grappling. Both require strength and training. Both demand athleticism and flexibility.
It is human to apply the experience we have to what we take in. When someone we love grieves, we apply the grief filter we know. The trouble is that my grief filter and your grief filter are different. Mine may be fake and yours real, or vice versa.
How many times has someone said, “I know how you feel” as a response to your grief? How many times have you been treated to a story about how the other person’s experience was much more severe, mournful, overwhelming, devastating, or whatever else than yours? How many times have you heard that maybe it’s time to move on and get over your loss?
While I don’t want to advocate for being stuck and not asking for, or recognizing the need for, help, I can see how the world sorts grief into Greco Roman and fake (or professional) wrestling. Greco Roman, the real stuff, is what people experience themselves. That’s where we feel like we have experience. That’s where compassion and empathy live.
Professional wrestling is grief other people experience. It’s somehow not as pure or as worthy. It’s not that people question that it is “real” grief; it’s that they are quick to dismiss it when it doesn’t fit within their own experience. They dismiss it if they don’t have the capability to practice empathy or compassion. They don’t understand, and they don’t need to.
I gave up defending my professional wrestling experience as legitimate, demanding work. Anyone who knew me during that time watched me accumulate nasty bruises and put on a lot of muscle; they could see behind the scenes. Those people are the same ones I call on now when I need support during grief. They know my wrestling, my grief, is real.
The people who dismiss my experience right away aren’t people with whom I concern myself. It took many years for me to see that I can’t make anyone see my point of view, nor should I focus on that. My grief is for me, and it’s unique because my attachment and relationship are different.
That fake wrestling adventure was for me, too.
Her nose wrinkles and she pulls back slightly. The corners of her mouth tuck themselves tightly, refusing to express any emotion.
It’s a lot of emotion. It is a mix of disgust, fear, and discomfort.
This woman just asked me about what I do and I told her. Now she doesn’t know how to respond, so she asks, “What do you love so much about death, anyway?”
It is mortality that I love, not death.
The knowledge and awareness of my limited time provide the ultimate freedom. When I have sight of that limitation, what is important to me rises to the surface effortlessly. I don’t waste time dissecting the behavior of others, getting stuck in harmful patterns, or questioning my decisions. I put my effort into relationships and experiences. I let go of things and achievements.
When I have sight of that limitation.
I consider myself fortunate to be among people who are also keenly aware of mortality. They live with a life-changing medical condition or are caring for someone with one. They work on legacy projects in hospice. They plan services and write eulogies for beloved family and friends. They focus on connection. They embody their values. They move into fear, because they want to remove the possibility of regret. They favor what is good enough and finished over ideal plans.
Being with these wholehearted humans nearly every day keeps mortality under my nose. That intimacy encourages me to keep my focus on what matters most.
I see their faces twitch in the early stages of holding back tears. I see the bags under their eyes that tell the story of how few hours of rest they gain as a caregiver. I see their fingers fidget, spinning rings and cracking knuckles, when they don’t know what to say. I see their shoulders drop and roll forward in a heaviness of sorrow that words do not touch. I see them express lifetimes of love while humbly lifting a spoon to gently feed. I see them collapse into salty oceans of raging sobs. I see them crack and immediately spackle over those spots to make it through the days. I see them caress hands and faces as though they were the most priceless gems. I see them unable to speak.
My work is to see all of this and reflect it in a beautiful way. I condense what is already saturated with emotion and intensity and tell a moving, sweeping story.
How could I not love mortality? It is the stuff of life.
This makes for awkward conversation at parties and networking events. My enthusiasm for mortality is more than most people are willing to process during casual conversation.
When people ask questions about my work, they want to know how I can do this. Then they want to know why.
I write about both both of those elsewhere. What I’ve come to love about my story and journey is how so many things that don’t seem connected have come together. It reminds me of a gigantic drawstring running through the casual waistband of life - it touches every part of the full circle and when I pull it a bit all of those things snug against each other.
It comes down to a formula for me.
intention + connection = wonder
That formula is the foundation of every photography class, every art class, I teach. It started as just a formula about my approach to telling a story.
It has become the formula of my life. It applies to everything.
When I need to find myself, I discern my intention and then connect. In relationships with others, I figure out what kind of partner I want to be in the duo and seek connection that supports that. When I plan a day or a week, I consider what I want to accomplish and then focus on connecting with the people, places, and things that make it happen.
These two factors come together, they pull like that comfy drawstring, to cinch everything.
When mortality becomes a friend, these are the two elements of life that rise to importance. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in the past five years. When they come together, and that requires wholeheartedness, wonder happens. Comfort happens. Peace happens. Joy happens.
Any misguided efforts of past decades in chasing achievements or acquiring things fall away. Intention matters. Connection matters.
Who do I want to be in this moment? How do I want to show up?
What kind of connection to do I want to have here? How do I establish that?
It is simple and oh, so complicated. It changes everything for me.
When people talk about end of life experiences and health scares and how they push them to shift perspective, I think it comes down to these two things. These two pieces, both together and separately, are essential for a life full of all of those most desirable things we imagine. This is the stuff of dreams, and it can be real life.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.