“It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” – Thomas Moore
In September, Mystery & Madness was born, an experiment in community building with an intimate group of photographers, writers, painters, musicians, designers, and stylists.
The twelve of us set out to find inspiration and connection. We gathered on the Oregon coast to touch nature and see stars. We traveled across the country to rest, recover, and adventure.
We rented a 6-bedroom home on Cape Perpetua, a name as evocative of magic as the landscape it represents. After our first night of sleeping in strange beds with unfamiliar bedmates, we awoke to the sun rising over the hills like fire.
The mist hovering over the shore conjured memories of my mom reading Prince Caspian out loud to me and my sisters and brother. The tide pools reminded me of jumping through hula hoops tossed in the swimming pool, pretending to dive from world to world, a la The Magician’s Nephew.
It’s startling how much time it can take to let go of the outside world. I didn’t realize how tired I was, or how anxious. We gave one another space to engage on our own terms, at our own pace. Throughout the week, Jennifer steadily worked on her novel, a water-bound fairy tale of mythical sea beings. Perhaps she will tell this crab’s story.
Three days after Christmas, I bought a ukulele – a tenor, for my longer-than-usual fingers. I practiced my 6 chords on the cliff while Sarah picked her way across the rocks below. A small green spider crawled on my knee and a ladybug hung out on my boot. I was easing into the unfamiliar comfort of total autonomy.
In our home for 8 days and 7 nights, all costs and cooking duties were divided evenly. Having collected more money than was ultimately needed, Ara issued partial refunds on the last day. This active equality led to tremendous collaboration and connection. No one was in charge; everyone was responsible.
Jordan read on the rocks for at least two hours, while Summer settled in at the picnic table to write. None of us were prepared for the landscape to be so welcoming. Even on the rainy days, the coast felt like home.
Mystery & Madness was conceived by Ara and me. (You can read that story here.) We personally invited a handful of working creatives, hoping to draw in people who get it, people who thrive on connection, people who prioritize authenticity. One of those people was Carrie, a painter from Kansas. Carrie was the lone guest without a personal connection to anyone in the house. We were social media friends, but had never spoken face-to-face until we met at the airport in Portland. If I was nervous, I’m sure Carrie was terrified. But she came. And it was unanimously agreed that Mystery & Madness would not have been what it was without her. I admired this woman from a distance; I love her from up close.
At night? Cards Against Humanity. Because a weeklong retreat wouldn’t be complete without chainsaws for hands.
An Oregon native, Ara became our unofficial guide. Only 10 minutes from the house, we watched the sunset from Cook’s Chasm, where Meghan climbed like a punk rock mountain goat up the embankment by the gorge. Thankfully she did not die, but I nearly did – of panic, as I watched her ascend to heights that could send me into cardiac arrest merely imagining the horrific possibilities.
I added to my #OneLens project during Mystery & Madness – though “project” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more of an exercise. #OneLens is me showing up with only one lens on hand. This forces me to shoot with purpose and intent, and motivates me to experiment and prioritize. I also did a lot of freelensing in Oregon. Freelensed photographs look magical, which is how I felt. This is Tamara:
Our collaborations began even before we all arrived in Oregon. Watch this short video of Carrie painting Meghan, set to Meg’s music. This is the kind of talent we had packed into our cozy seaside rental house. I hope the next guests can feel it when they walk through the door, like the lingering scent of a snuffed candle.
I care little for landscapes alone. I am most greatly moved by people, and a person within a landscape will always inspire me more than the landscape on its own. Here is Greta of the flame-orange hair and the gold-limned eyes.
I love trees. The first tree I loved was a weeping willow in the front yard of my family’s Oklahoma City home. Even with a nagging fear of heights, I would climb the delicate branches of that tree until they sank even closer to the ground. My second Tree Love was an enormous, ancient oak a few blocks from the house in Hampton. It must have been 150 years old at least. Both the willow and the oak are gone now, victims of insurance risk and a parking lot.
This stone-like cross-section of driftwood had my heart the moment I saw it. I am nearly 6 feet tall, but this sea-smoothed tree trunk was taller. Sliding my hands along the mounds and crevices felt like prayer.
Sometimes I love a photograph that I know no one else will love. I cannot tell you why I love it; I just do. This photograph of Greta and Meghan makes me feel the way I felt during our week of mysteries and madnesses.
On the east coast, we watch the sun rise over the ocean. On the west coast, we watch the sun set. This is science. It felt like a miracle.
This is what I think: Photograph yourself. Not because you are flawless or vain. But because you are here, now, in this moment; and no one else will.
Mornings were slow and long and rich. Coffee brewing. Bacon frying. Someone walking along the shore. Someone painting at the dining table. Someone reading or writing or both. (Usually both.) Invariably conversation would spark, and, quite organically, we would begin the slow, steady work of connecting with others to find ourselves.
At Bandon, Meg and I hopped the fence and scaled the steep hill to the beach below. The others found a ramp in short order, but I’m glad I didn’t wait. I’m glad I scared myself a little.
“Oh, the loneliness, and the scream to prove to everyone that I exist.” – The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit
One cannot be a woman in this world and not acknowledge the terrible burden to be beautiful. With no fanfare and little discussion, our collective drew strength from the most dangerous ideas of all: you are worthy; you are valuable; you are beautiful. This is Ara:
I didn’t know I was even that thirsty / until I took a drink. // Then suddenly, water was everywhere. / There in the booms and blooms of the ocean. / There in the air in the forest. / There in the rain on the beach. // I did not have to gulp / or gorge / or sip. // I could drink when I wanted. / From the stream or from the coffee cup. // I didn’t need the water station / or the sudden IV in a hospital bed. // We were fluid. / Plump. / Full. / Saturated. // Now I have to make sure I drink a little everyday / just to stay moist. – Amanda, Writer and Rocker of the Orange Kimono
I did not know, when we set out to build it, what Mystery & Madness would be at its conclusion. I still do not feel that I have the words for the tremendous gift I was given. I left Oregon with eleven new sisters. I flew home with bits of art and slivers of magic still embedded in the palms of my hands. And I share this winding, wandering story with you only to say, “Go. Find your people.” There is no workshop or forum or meetup in the world that will ever take the place of a hard-won community of dreamers, wishers, hope-ers, makers, do-ers, truth-tellers, rainmakers. We are forging our own roads. We are telling our own stories. We are embracing the mystery and the madness.
“Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.” – Antony & Cleopatra, William Shakespeare