Magic in the Arcanum: “It’s Levee-OH-sah. Not Lev-EE-oh-SAH!

Red Rosary
Photograph by Erin Thomas, 2015

I’ve submitted my first round of photographs to my master and cohort at The Arcanum. Let me say up front that I’m enjoying myself. I really am. I can breathe because there isn’t an end date I have to fret over, believing I’ll be kicked to the curb without having practiced some real skills.

Having said that, the magic feels a bit difficult to master (much like Ron Weasley) but seems graceful and fluid for other cohort members (like Hermione Granger). It’s not that I don’t run full force into the artistry of photography; it’s that I drown in the technological aspect of it. And I don’t mean “oh this is new; I’ll have to learn this”; I mean “OMIGOSH! I’m back in Math 30 and I understand Step 1, but I need to understand Step 10 to make it work!!”

I failed Math 30.

My lowest grade was 8% on a test.

Anyone who knows me as a perfectionist would understand how demoralizing this was for me, but I was stubborn. I refused to pull out of Math because I believed I could do it. I wasn’t going to let it beat me! But beat me it did. And hard. I had one of the best math teachers I could have hoped for; my parents paid for a tutor; I stayed for after school classes; I had extra-curricular material.

And I still sank all the way to the bottom.

By the time diplomas came around (Grade 12 provincial exams that contribute to students’ overall grades), I didn’t have the fight in me to even try. Despite having studied for hours, I walked into the test with anxiety already at a raging level, sat down, and read a language I didn’t understand. I began checking off multiple choice answers at random because all I could do was get somewhere fast so I could breathe. As I exited the exam, another student (a math whiz) passed me; he was asked by a teacher how the exam was and he replied: “It was so easy, a baby could have done it.”

I raced to the bathroom and sobbed.

I was able to understand and appreciate subtext in Shakespeare; I could grasp theoretical political theories like communism or facism; I knew human anatomy inside and out; and I could devour Les Miserables-sized novels, AND enjoy them. What was wrong with me?

Between math (including algebra, calculus, chemistry and physics), and any language class, I peaked at about Grade 08 and steadily fell thereafter. The main reason I chose to attend Bible college instead of pursuing a degree in counselling was: NO MATH!!! (psychology demands statistics… UGH!)

It was all good until I was told that my specific college program required a logic course because I’d failed math (“If Bill left the train platform at 7:47am going 130km/hour, and Sue left at 7:50am going at 135km/hr… you know those horrid questions). And some bright profession scheduled this torture for 8am three time every week all semester long.

What the HE–!!

I dropped the class and switched to the 4 year program that didn’t require math. I may have railroaded my career, but I saved myself another semester of hell.

So OF COURSE I’d fall in love with digital photography. Why wouldn’t I?!

When my therapist diagnosed me with Aspergers (now simply referred to as AS — autism spectrum) in 2009, I felt confused. Weren’t Aspies supposed to be math geniuses? Wizards at logic?

Some are. Some can. Not all are. And not all can.

You need to understand that I struggled with even basic fractions. I worked as an educational assistant for a couple years here at the local trades college. One of my classes was assisting a Grades 7-9 level math class (gulp!). But for the first time, basic fractions started to make sense. The teacher used plenty of hands-on toy pizzas that I could put together and take apart (when no one was looking). Imagine a 31 year old woman having beautiful “AHA!” moments, when finally fractions that were taught in Grade 04 began to make a little bit of sense (I was 9 years old in Grade 04; fractions only took me 22 years to learn. Driving was easier; that only took me 10 years to learn) 😉

So as I began this journey of contemplative photography, I saw that apertures were measured in fractions… there were these things called “f-stops”… there was depth of focus to worry about… white balance… composition… lens structure… distance… shutter speed.

All tools I need to know and understand in order for me to be able to relax into my art.

But these tools use a language that I struggle with, and I have to learn the presence of mind to understand most of these tools at the same time in order to create a shot. I accept that I need to learn these tools and my stubbornness tells me that I will find a way. That way, I think, is going to be finding a language that will make these concepts understandable.

My master, Shari, is encouraging me to ask lots and lots of questions of my cohort. They have knowledge to share, and want to be supportive. I’m wary. Part of me is anxious over the level of answer I might receive (kind of like having a math tutor who’s trying to help you, but is using terms way past your level); the other part of me is fighting the need to admit to the struggle. I have worked hard to get away from my formal diagnosis, not because it’s not a part of me; but because it’s just that: a PART of me.

It’s not “Erin”.

And in getting to know new people, I want them to know “Erin” and not “Erin-with-AS”. We all know how labels can stick. At least, I do. And my brain battles daily: “Is this a context where sharing about ‘Erin-with-AS’ is appropriate? Or not?”

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve flubbed it, and chosen the “NOT” category for $10,000. So I think I’m justifiably hesitant. Not only do I need to learn photo-speak, I need to learn it with new people, and I need to learn it with new people who are fluent or semi-fluent in this photo-speak.

But like writing, I can’t NOT stop taking pictures. I love it. I absolutely love it.

So I thought that if maybe I shared this specific struggle on my own little platform first before a small group of strangers (except for Shari), I could gear myself up to sharing with my classmates. If I can be comfortable here, then perhaps I can warm up to the way I need to share how I’m struggling to master photography for some very real reasons.

I know I’m going to overcome this. There’s no diploma exam defining my post-secondary career here. I will be able to understand my cohort classmates, I will be able to compose shots, and I’ll be able to create such deep muscle memory that I’ll be able to see the artistry in a shot I want to take, and have all those technical specs ready almost without thinking about them (almost)… like a second nature.

I just need to find my own special language that will connect brain and body and heart together.

Time to go read some theories on the history of anthropological pilgrimages (not kidding!). It’s by far the easier challenge at the moment. 😉

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