The summer after my sophomore year in college, I ate my lunch on an iceberg in Iceland.
I was studying Arctic Biology and had boarded an amphibious boat to tour the glaciers. We docked on a particularly hospitable glacier and I munched a sandwich while – hundreds of feet below us – the ancient ice melted and headed out to sea.
We sat quietly on the ice and listened to the water’s music trickling through the cracks and fissures. The sky held dense grey clouds, but the water surrounding the icebergs was a brilliant blue. I reached into my pocket for my yellow disposable Kodak camera and snapped a photograph of an iceberg that looked like the head of a dog.
Most of the students carried lightweight disposable cameras everywhere we went. After all, we were having the experience of a lifetime: we wanted to remember and to share our experiences with family and friends when we returned home.
In fact, there was only one student who didn’t have a camera and who didn’t take a single picture of her Arctic summer.
While the rest of us were leaning out of open bus windows with our cameras up to our eyes, snapping photos of Þingvellir on The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, she just let the wind whip through her hair as she looked at the landscape.
When we shoved our cameras into our backpacks and hiked to the top of a dormant volcano on the Summer Solstice, she traveled free. In colorful jackets and packs, we hiked that black ashy mountain and arrived atop a cliff, overlooking the ocean.
We snapped photos of the friendly puffin as they alighted on the cliffside. The waves hit the rocks below with relentless energy.
We posed like Vikings with our midnight snack: salty dried fish that pulled apart in strips.
We gambled too many Kodak exposures trying to catch the photo of the sun at its lowest point, clicking repeatedly until the sun had sunk as close as it could toward the horizon only to bounce in the opposite direction and journey back to the top of the sky, never to set that day.
The young woman without the camera just thought, laughed, looked, ate.
She was unusual. Strange, even? (I admit, I thought it.)
When we returned to the States and picked up our developed photos from the local camera shop, we shared our stacks of glossy pictures with friends and family, trying to communicate the significance of our experience.
I discovered that one aching sentence accompanied each of my photos.
It went something like this: “This is a geyser that was spewing steam and sulfur. You could feel the ground shake and feel the heat on your cheeks. Of course, the photo doesn’t really do it justice. You really just had to be there.”
Or like this: “This is a hot spring that we swam in. We reached down to the bottom and grabbed handfuls of the smooth mud to smear on our faces. They say it’s full of healthy minerals. That’s me, pretending I was at the spa. You really just had to be there.”
That was the refrain, over and over again: You really just had to be there.
You had to be there.
That aching refrain came to my mind last Friday night. (Now almost 20 years since that Icelandic adventure, most of which resides more in my memory than in my dusty photo album.) It was Family Fun Night. We ate pizza and agreed to clean the dinner dishes quickly so we could all play with Josiah – our 1 year old – before he went to bed.
After the pizza pan was scrubbed and the table wiped down, we gathered in the living room and joined hands – all of us – Daddy, Mommy, all five children. We walked in a slow circle, stepping foot over foot and singing “Ring Around the Rosy”. We were all watching Josiah and he looked up at us with pure delight. His eyes shone and his mouth was open in a wide smile. His little feet tried desperately to keep up with ours. We “all fell down”, tickling that giggling baby and propping him back on his feet.
He didn’t have to say “again, again!” because we did.
Then we played “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” starting slowly so he could have a chance. As we sped up to the frantic fury that only “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes” can elicit, that baby just hunched over and gleefully patted his knees – just 8 inches off the ground – as if to say, “I’ve totally got this!”
Later in the evening, after Josiah went to bed, we popped corn on the stove, shaking it in a paper bag of sweet-and-salty caramel coating. We drank tea and played a competitive game of Splendor, but my favorite, most favorite, most favorite moment of the entire evening was the game we played right before whisking that baby up to bed.
Ryan and I knelt in the middle of the living room, facing one another. We met hand to hand and locked fingers. I felt the warmth and strength of the hands I have been holding for 16 years now. One child after another scooted under our “bridge” as we sang “London Bridges Falling Down,” capturing the thrilled child who happened to be under our arms when we sang “my fair lady!”
(Oh, this is so special – one of my dearest childhood memories is of my own mother and father holding hands as we kids danced underneath their “London Bridge” in the living room of my childhood home. There’s no photograph of that moment, it’s just a memory, and one of deep contentment.)
As I knelt there, holding my husband’s hands, singing a ridiculous song as our 5 rambunctious children squealed with delight and scurried around in circles, I thought, This is the most romantic thing.
This holding hands.
This playing together.
This being here as a family.
The children’s faces were beaming, my husband looked so young, and my heart was so full of love that I thought I should grab my camera.
I have to capture this moment! It’s so beautiful.
But then I thought upon the countless moments that are too dear for photographs: prayers offered, babies born, summer air savored, laughter shared, songs sung.
I thought about the moment right before we grab our cameras: you know, that moment that catches our attention in the first place, that single, holy moment that causes us to think, “I want to capture this, treasure this, remember this forever.”
As it turns out, most of my photographs are moments that are similar to that golden moment, but are not that moment.
I’m learning that when a moment catches my attention, I must settle in and look through my own eyes instead of bouncing up to grab a view finder.
I’m learning to let that moment sink down into the horizon of my soul.
To burry itself in a heart of worship.
To go down deep within me, a seed of wisdom.
So that beloved night, as the moon shone high in the heavens, I decided to stay on my knees. My fingers were laced within my husband’s. Our arms were reaching over our children, every so often capturing one or another, and hugging them with all our might.
I really just had to be there.