I worked at an old camera and video shop in down town Rogers, Arkansas for sixteen months after graduating college. I was hired as a portrait/commercial photographer, but most of my days were spent behind the dusty laminate counters, selling cameras and video equipment, helping elderly customers upload photos at our kiosks, and occasionally teaching basic photography classes after hours. Enough time has passed that I’m becoming a bit sentimental about it, you know, in the disingenuous nostalgia that forgets the bad hours, and the searing arthritis, the truly mean customers, and in moments on break where you wondered in desperation if you could burn your social security card and walk away from man-made pressure and responsibility and befriend a raccoon that appreciated you for who you were, and not what kind of camera deals you could give him. Maybe I’ve been thinking about working at the camera shop more in particular now that it’s Easter.
Around Easter every year at the shop, they offered $10 live bunny portrait sessions, which is exactly as it sounds: wicked children, helpless parents, beady-eyed, caged bunnies, and giant Easter eggs and white picked fence backgrounds that resulted in eyesore photos parents went nuts for. Those weeks were the closest to the gates of hades I’ve been. It’s a universal truth that all babies would kill us for food and attention, could their physical ability match their will. While the will learns to simmer as babies grow and adapt to social norms, I saw it often spring up and turn homicidal towards myself as kids screamed, scratched, and even lunged at me. But it was the bunnies that had it the worst. The poor quivering Leporidae, pooping little turds of anxiety as the children squeezed, pulled, dropped, yanked, and tried to feed them their own feces. I defended the bunnies. I spoke on their behalf. I put them on a rotation to give them a break from the abuse, I fed them, cuddled them after hours, even though I am not a ‘rabbit person’ I recognized the need for affection. The farmer who put them on loan for us that year said I was a good caretaker but I hardly cared by the end of the two weeks. I just needed them out of my life permanently. The rabbits had turned on me. instead of seeing me as their protector, I had become their enemy. They began burrowing their back feet into my wrists, which became covered in bleeding claw marks. Kids could blame their scratches on the bunny now. I also discovered an unknown allergy to the little boogers that manifested itself only in the form of my throat swelling almost shut and the worst, my upper lip swelling up so large, the other sales guys couldn’t keep from laughing at me and calling me “Angelina Jolie”. “Say ‘cheese!’” I would say in a candy sweet, faux excited voice to the demon child before me, who gave a glare that seemed to say, “I’m getting treats no matter what, so I’m going to harass the bunny, scream at my leisure, and ruin. Your. Life.” There were seasons at the shop that flew by quickly but Easter portraits were the longest two weeks I can remember. What started as an optimistic two weeks of bunny portraits, produced a broken Lorax, who was through speaking for the bunnies, bunnies who had done nothing but broken my spirit and arm skin.
Being in customer service provides a unique relationship with people that allows you to see what people are made of. There’s something about wearing a name tag or uniform that makes you irrelevant or almost invisible, or even an exception. People’s guards tend to be down, which can be both beautiful and horrible. It’s beautiful when someone wants to share with me painfully honest stories about their life while ordering pictures at the kiosk or having a customer bring you coffee because they notice you enjoy it; it’s horrible when they raise their voice at you, or belittle the parts of yourself you wish were immune from strangers’ words. There were days I closed up shop so angry at how I was treated by customers and never having the justice I wanted. My thoughts and desires have shifted and matured from my time there. At the time my biggest problem was not having enough money to live off or enough time to invest in my personal relationships. I thought I wanted friends to be able to hang out with and weekends to learn new life skills, like cooking or jogging or weed eating. I thought I needed time to plug-in and serve at a local church. I thought I needed to repair relationships and make entirely new ones because that’s what good people do. I remember telling my coworker that I didn’t really know how I was doing in life and asked if he could give me a grade denoting how he thought I was succeeding. I’m glad I have that memory because I believe I verbalized something I will feel for the rest of my life. I just wish every four years, someone could just give me a grade. “B-, your inner personal relationships are great but your life goals have been on the back burner. Keep up the good work!” or “D+, you rot. Get some character and goals next time around.” How helpful would that be? Instead, I’m surrounded by a hundred opinions looking out for the interest of themselves, feeling very alone in my journey of living a worthy life.
I am friends with an elegant woman named Joan, who agrees to have coffee with me every Tuesday morning while we study the Bible and read books together and discuss them. She is truly beautiful, inside and out and I’m super lucky to have her as a mentor and a friend. One thing I love about Joan is her dedication to telling stories. She is a recorder of family history and inner personal growth, an avid journaler, and advocate of all of us church gals of “writing down what God is doing”. I want to be better at that. God has done so many amazing things in my young life and by the time I’m forty, I’ll have forgotten all but a handful if I’m not careful. And Joan is paying me a kindness to warn me, for which I am grateful. I’ve wanted to write and remember how much God has reshaped what I value in life since my frustrated days closing at the camera shop, feeding Easter bunnies, missing out on weekend activities with new friends, and sitting lonely in a packed church.
I’m a dreamer by nature and dream for the day I don’t worry about if I’ll ever pay my student loans off, or have a job that makes a marked difference on the world, or if I’ll get to live in the city, or write that screenplay, or have that moment, or see that day, or if I’ll ever get to raise a kid. And while dreaming is good because it encourages and reminds us of what’s to come, God is changing what I truly want, shifting what things or people can do for me or I for them, to two simple things. So here are my two simple things I want my life to be full of for the rest of my days:
1. I want to bear witness to what God is doing in my life and others’ lives.
2. I want to bless the Lord.
Bearing witness is a hard thing to combat again the wish to change or heal, but I cannot change or heal other people, I can only listen and I can show up. And blessing the Lord seems like such an oxymoron but yet the Psalmist speaks of this often. I’m particularly moved by the story of Mary Magdalene breaking the alabaster flask and anointing Jesus and how that blessed Him, and not in a condescending sort of way, but in a way that truly uplifted and honored him.
I’m weary of holding onto my dreams and fears and wondering what grade I’m getting in life. I’m probably failing in many ways but that’s okay. I’m ready to celebrate what I have today and show gratefulness in all circumstances. I’m ready to stop searching for lives to change, or try to change myself, and I want to sitting on my lifebench, open to whoever comes my way and to listen and discover what God is making new in them and letting them go when they need to go. I’m tired of complaining, worrying, and dreaming up something better for myself. I want to break all of those things at the feet of Jesus and wipe His feet with them, fully surrendered in joy to his work and leading in my life. Joan is right: remembering is important. I want to remember this day on a day that’s hard to see straight. It’s good to remember truths that hold in seasons of gain and loss so I become anchored in any weather.
I remember a loyal customer at the camera shop, who was an older local doctor. Doctor Redwine had a full gray beard and thick black rimmed glasses that never managed to cloak his kind, wrinkled face. He came in often to buy prints and check on any new camera models. His son was a freelance journalist living in Beirut and Doctor Redwine was incredibly proud of him. They both shared a love of the outdoors and photography and he spoke of him almost every time he came in the shop. I don’t know that he was much of a memorable customer to the other sales associates as he was to me, but he was someone who managed to recharge by soul batteries just by being himself. He was soft-spoken, serious, and even-keeled.
Camera companies always release new models in the spring and fall and Doctor Redwine was on the lookout for the new Nikon model for his son that fall. He had preordered the body and came in at least once a week to see if the shipment arrived. He was giving it to his son for Christmas when he returned from Beirut with his family for the holidays. The shipment finally came in December and the camera emerged from the large cardboard box with his name stamped on it. My boss grinned, “Well you better call him and tell him it’s here.” He knew I liked Doctor Redwine a lot. I called and left an eager message, “It’s Bri Suitt at the camera shop! The eagle has landed!” A week passed by and he didn’t pick up. It felt strange. We were pressed from the other branches to transfer and sell the camera but I held my ground. Doctor Redwine wanted that thing more than anyone and I wanted it for him. Two weeks passed and then I called again. He answered.
“Hi Doctor Redwine, it’s Bri from the camera shop. I-” He cut me off before I could deliver my good tidings.
“Hello Bri. You can give the camera to another customer.” His voice sounded tired and strained. “My son passed away before Christmas and I don’t need a new camera, so I’m not sure what I would do with it.”
It was a moment I was totally unprepared for. I stumbled over my words, saying how sorry I was over and over. He was kind and endured. Before I ended the painful conversation he paused. “You know, I’d like to see it before you ship it off. Can I come by this week and check it out?” I told him of course and he hung up. I read an article that night about his son in an Arab news group. He fell to his death climbing in the Sannin mountains. He was 33 with a wife and kids. I can’t imagine what that news felt like for his family.
Doctor Redwine showed up the following Monday. He looked older. He moved slower and even looked shorter. It hurt me to see such a kind man look so beaten down, playing with a camera he would never be able to give as a surprise to his son. I leaned over the computer on the counter, googling questions he had about the specs. It seemed like such a normal interaction at the shop and I hated that. I finally mustered up the courage to break the ice separating normality with reality.
“Dr. Redwine, your son would have loved this camera. You’re such a good dad to want buy this for him.”
He sighed the heaviest sigh I’ve ever heard, looked at me, and smiled, “All fathers want to give their sons good gifts. He was a joy.” We were quiet for a bit and then he said, “Christmas was so sad this year but it made Christ all the more necessary. I’m so grateful for that. Thank you for keeping the camera for me to see.” He left shortly after that and I never saw him again before I moved to Missouri.
I think about what Doctor Redwine said that day often and how right it was to bear witness in the tiniest capacity to his pain as he blessed the Lord. And those short sixteen months that could easily be remembered as unsavory and insignificant bunny-riddled and mini meltdowns in the break room are also marked with beauty and significance.
Joan is right, it is good to remember.