" You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be miserable. I choose to be happy."
I came to Washington to meet two women for the project: a theatre artist in Seattle and then Valerie. I’d spend two days in the city, then Valerie would pick me up for a drive to the more rural Issaquah where old-growth trees towered and incredible views were less than an hour in any direction.
When I arrived in Seattle, though, I had to adjust to the disappointment and reality that some people would push back about the project. The woman I planned to shoot first told me nearly immediately, with her back to me at the stove, she’d prefer not to be involved anymore. While I was still welcome there, she preferred I just use her home (a very Seattle, almost commune-like edifice in which old friends, outcast animals, avant garde performers and strange stories streamed in and out of constantly) as a place to crash rather than interview. I respected her decision and the next two days were polite, if guarded.
On the last afternoon, we sat on her porch drinking coffee quietly- I was at peace with her reserve, even if I felt something was missed out on. Suddenly, with just hours left to our visit, she began to speak. About a horrible crime which shook her community, one in which she lost friends she’d had for decades. It’s not for here; this page is Valerie’s. But there was something in this moment I can’t forget. In watching this woman’s profile as she spoke, I saw pain. She haltingly began to speak about her disease, how she’d seen her life change, and I heard loss. She had cannily waited till the end, and her story feels unfinished to me.
Valerie then arrived. The crossover-episode quality to the pickup was absurd only to me: the perky Valerie, with such color in her face, stood at a gate enthusiastically chatting up the wispier, guarded other woman. Their posture, tone and energy were so contrary. What’s the opposite of a mirror? This was the end of my first visit, and I was left with the reminder that there are many experiences, some you will never resolve or describe.
Valerie and I, however, immersed ourselves on the drive into the idyll of Eastern Washington's mountains- on relationships, marriage, disease, to reflect on my visit to Seattle and what it said about all three of us. I noticed a difference in myself- before, the change in plans would have plunged me into anxiety but I was relaxed. I was asking bolder questions about disease management and marriage, responding with more spontaneity about my own experience. Maybe it's the mountain air, but more likely Valerie brings that out in people.
We arrived in Issaquah for dinner with her husband, Joe. The antithetical quality of my time in Seattle became apparent again; here we were in nature, under hanging lights while their elegant pointer Artie played nearby with a tennis ball. The Grateful Dead trickled onto the patio as the Northwest spring sky turned deep blue and orange. The beef was organic, the conversation alive and the air restoring. It was unforgettable.
Valerie and I rambled for hours over wine, while the more shy Joe moved in and out of the house. Their two sons were out of the house, and they were rediscovering the experience of just each other, and the changes they’d seen together. It’s easy to like Valerie, who is passionate in her fight for wellness and the health of others. Blending a lifelong career as a nurse, an upbringing in discordantly Conservative Missouri and a 30 year marriage, she is self-aware, smart and gives her opinions without hesitation: progressive politics, health, relationships. She talks about her sons with levelheadedness, sighing over their yet-grown-into flaws and praising their individualism. She and Joe speak in affectionate ribs, giving "Dear" a teasing, lived-in inflection. Their house is filled with mementos of their lives together: family photos, tokens of travel and the flowers he brought her all the time, unsolicited. She toured everything with me, her voice imbued with affectionate pride and grace. She has gratitude for all things, from the short-lived good weather to the unpredictable nature of her health to the sublime nature surrounding her.
We had a lot in common, but I’m no naturalist. Valerie kept calling me 'pioneer woman' jokingly, and while I’m not the cliche New Yorker with parochial affectations like hand-clapping at covered bridges, I stood out enough the Issaquah sheriff was summoned over a neighbor’s call “about a woman walking around the neighborhood at 8am looking out of place" (aka Conspiracy to Lower Property Values). Aside from embarrassing moments like that, I did feel pioneering and venturesome. Valerie brings that out in people.
So we set off early for a snowshoeing trip around the Lower Gold Creek Basin. The snowshoes themselves were peculiar to me, as were the curious collection of items we packed for the day (sunscreen and sweaters? In May?). Me and her, in sunglasses and hats (Joe insisted she wear one), pioneer women.
However, it turns out snowshoeing is fucking hard and a real pioneer woman requires better lower leg strength than I possess. Valerie, however, practically flew across the white because she felt so good that day. As I huffed behind, I admired her acumen for nature and the trails. It was warm but visually confusing, white at our feet and the sun blazing above as I sweated and shivered. We saw only three or four people, striking up conversation with each. We spoke with Roger, a 73 year old cancer survivor, plodding out of the woods from his cabin. No snowmobile- he said he always just laid his stuff on a toboggan, even when dragging his Thanksgiving turkey out there.
Valerie, so pleased to share Washington's brilliance with me, just grinned. We sat in the sun, huffed up hills that looked small and felt huge, and talked. We imagined the Northwest warmth would never disappear into the gray she found so depressing during the rest of the year. We played with my camera and took exhausted, happy Instagram selfies.
The rest of the day, we drove into suburbs, through nearby reserves and- as a thrilling gift to me as a Lynch fan and Washington tourist- to Twede’s Cafe, the Twin Peaks diner. THE TWIN PEAKS DINER. I crouched in the parking lot and rolled on my side for the perfect, enviable Instagram.
Last, fatigued and red-faced, we stood above Snoqualmie Falls, a 270 foot waterfall. We barely said a word, just stood at the railing. I watched Valerie instead, someone I shared such realness with that it surprised me. And at that moment, almost exactly three years since my mother had died and two since I’d begun the project, I believed in myself. Unbelievable faith.
Her photo is particularly special to me because of this. I used to feel so relieved after I get my shot, that I didn't fail anyone- ready to stop, get on my laptop and go home. Here, while the white foam crashed and hummed in perpetuity below us, I simultaneously so felt confident and ready to fail, I could have kept going.