Musings on language, images and life

Category: Images


Thanks to my wonderfully generous family and friends, I’ve had two lovely baby showers as I prepare for the arrival of my first child. At one of the showers, I received a gift that moved me deeply. My mom’s cousin gave me a doll that my grandfather, at that time a young army doctor, brought back for her from France after WWII; a gift for his brother’s first child, his goddaughter. As her beautiful note articulated, the connection between the doll’s provenance, my lifelong interest in French, the fact that my soon-to-be-born daughter, Lyla, will be raised to be bilingual (and hopefully have an interest in “la Francophonie” like her parents), not to mention the fact that the doll had been gifted to her by my deceased grandfather when she was a baby… all signs indicated to her that this was the time to pass the doll along to a new generation.

Blake Family Doll © Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2011

Lyla will be my beloved 85-year-old grandmother’s first great-grandchild. Likewise, if my grandfather were still alive, he would be excitedly welcoming her as his first great-grandchild. As I opened the doll at the shower and began to understand its significance, several things hit me. During my pregnancy, I’ve often reflected on how fortunate I am to have such an exceptional family— not only in terms of talent and vision, but also because of their bottomless reserve of love and ability to nurture and inspire. It’s easy to imagine what Lyla will learn from my parents, sister, grandmother, extended family and my in-laws. I’m beyond excited to discover what various family members’ traits and interests she will share— as well as some that are all her own, of course. However, until I opened that doll, I hadn’t really thought about the traits that she will inherit from those who have left this world; the lessons they have passed down through us that will, in turn, be passed down to her.

The term provenance is typically used to describe the origin or source of an object. It comes from the French verb provenir (“to come from”).  I first encountered this term in the French context twelve years ago was while I was waiting for a train at Gare Montparnasse in Paris. On the arrivals/departure board, the terminology used is en provenance de, describing where the train is coming from. Seeing this expression for the first time made me think of where the train had stopped before it got to me, and who it had picked up along the way. My imagination ran wild.

We are all on a journey, and, for most of us, our family members are the first people we encounter— if we are lucky, they become our nurturers, our teachers, our guides. They encourage us to be our own people, to strive for our own goals. However, whether we are conscious of it or not, their journeys no doubt impact and inspire our own. Whether living or deceased, they have much to give us. Remembering those who have gone before us and reveling in the presence of those who are still with us has given me much joy in these anticipatory days before I meet my next inspiration, my next teacher— for I know this child will be both of those things and much more.


Swallowing the Moon

Yesterday, I came across the following poem on one of my favorite literary sites, Words Without Borders.

The Moon

Every time the moon rose, she prayed.
Finally Wol-nam’s mother, at forty, bore a son.
In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.
After her son was born, Wol-nam’s mother
would lose her mind
without fail
every time the moon rose.
Late at night, washing dishes,
she’d smash one bowl-
the moon then hid in a cloud
and the world grew blind.

From Ten Thousand Lives by Ko Un, published in 2005 by Green Integer Press.

Ko Un is a Korean poet and Buddhist monk who writes primarily on pastoral and spiritual themes. My first reaction to this poem was both admiration and frustration. I found it stunningly beautiful in its simplicity, yet disappointingly predictable in its reliance on the trope of female insanity during pregnancy/motherhood. I rolled the words around in my mind throughout the day, trying to figure out exactly why it was speaking to me. I kept coming back to the line “In dreams before pregnancy,
she swallowed the moon.”

In my own dreams before pregnancy, I experienced similar symbolic moments– images that both made perfect sense and were highly impossible. I dreamed of incubating lush gardens in my abdomen and of giving birth to fully formed humans who verbally thanked me in multiple languages immediately after exiting my body. Like the images in my dreams, “swallowing the moon” is the epitome of impossibility, yet it somehow captures the anticipation, trepidation and (metaphysical) appetite I experienced while we were trying to conceive and, to an even greater degree, now that we await her arrival.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2011

As fate would have it, I had my first “crash and burn” pregnancy moment last night. In my 33 weeks of pregnancy thus far, I’ve felt nothing but happiness and gratitude. Every day I think about how I am in the minority of pregnant women on this earth– I have access to top-notch healthcare and my in utero child appears to be completely healthy. I have a highly supportive mate, a family that is beyond wonderful, a fulfilling and flexible career, and the intangible and tangible resources to raise my child according to our priorities as parents. Mostly, I am grateful for the chance to be a mother, no matter what the circumstances. These are the thoughts that have prevailed over the last 8 months.

However, last night as I was rounding the couch to sit down, I jammed my hip into a sharp corner, causing me to stumble and (uncharacteristically) burst into tears. I rubbed my bruised hip and slumped down onto the sofa, letting the tears roll down my cheeks and my moral rapidly spiral downward, unable to stop either. Michael moved closer and took my hand. “What can I do?” he asked.

“I’m tired. I’m impatient. I want her to be here. I have deadlines to meet before she comes. I’m clumsy and can’t make it up a flight of stairs without getting winded.” As soon as I heard the words escape my mouth, I felt ashamed. I had become the stereotypical, self-indulgent First World pregnant woman. “But I know that I have no right to be crying,” I quickly added, as if to absolve myself of all that I had already uttered during this state of temporary insanity.

“You can cry about whatever you want and for as long as you want,” he said. “You’re so beautiful and I am grateful for everything that you are doing for our daughter.” I remember hearing his words and feeling him kiss my forehead before quickly falling asleep, my head and body heavy.

This morning I awoke with the sun and a new perspective. Who among us has not experienced a moment of temporary loss of control, the feeling of surrendering to something completely illogical? Instead of self admonishing, perhaps I should focus on the universal aspect of “swallowing the moon”– recognizing that these moments of temporary insanity happen to most of us, pregnant or not, parents or not, across cultural boundaries. Forces beyond our control drive us to mental and physical exhaustion. At times it feels as if the “world grows blind,” but our resiliency prevails. Like the moon, we cycle back around.


Some of life’s most fulfilling moments are the ones when I perceive the imperfect beauty of the objects around me. Wabi-sabi. I was first introduced to this Japanese aesthetic philosophy at a pottery studio I visited when I lived in L.A. Roughly put, Wabi-sabi is the practice of recognizing the beauty of elements that are  imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It encompasses that which is humble, unconventional, or even paradoxical.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

“Wabi” is used to define the type of beauty that relies on its imperfection. For example, an asymmetrical hand-thrown vase versus a mass-produced symmetrical one. “Sabi” describes the kind of beauty that comes with a natural process of age and use, such as peeling paint.

When living in a culture that privileges soulless consumption, newness, youth, uniform perfection and cleanliness, wabi-sabi provides a powerful antidote. It encourages us to consider history, source, and craft. Though it is, in essence, an aesthetic philosophy, wabi-sabi gives us a framework in which to consider the representational value of the objects in front of us as well (if age or signs of use are integral to the object’s aesthetic value, then we are pushed to consider what caused the object to age, what it meant in the past and means to the present). Thus, Wabi-sabi allows for and encourages the intersection of object and narrative.

I won’t pretend that I’ve studied wabi-sabi extensively (though I would like to at some point) or that I consistently practice this philosophy. What I can say is that it has provided a term and a construct to a previously undefined (by me) pull I’ve experienced toward that which is imperfect, gritty, irregular and antiqued in objects, art and literature.


Myriad cultures and religions around the world maintain an intense connection to water. As a life source and ultimate cleanser, water plays a crucial role in rituals — whether spiritual or secular.

During the Wudu ritual, Muslims cleanse their feet, legs, hands and elbows before engaging in prayer. Their belief is that just as prayer cleanses the soul, the body must also be washed with water. Orthodox Jews practice Mikveh, or immersion in a ”gathering of water.”  This ritual is traditionally required before ceremonies of conversion, marriage and the Sabbath. Christians of every stripe use water in the ritual of Baptism, during which a person is committed to God and a Christian way of life. In addition to washing themselves before entering the temple, Hindus believe that water from the River Ganges (in India) is sacred, which is why they go there regularly to wash away their iniquities.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard 2010

Meaningful connections to water do not only manifest in religious practices. My good friends organized beautiful ceremonies for their children, dedicating them to nature with the use of water. My husband, an avid surfer, has always said: “The wave is a living, breathing thing.” Over the years, he has explained unbelievable things that happened to him in the water, events that made him realize more about who he was and his place in the world. I certainly can’t deny the relaxing effect of walking along a Caribbean beach or sitting on a rocky cliff above Lake Superior (thank you, negative ions). From Japanese bathhouses to Arab baths in the South of Spain, I have also engaged in my fare share of cleansing rituals in various cultures — each lovely and meaningful in its own way.

Given the importance of water in our lives and the lives of those around the globe, given the power with which it is imbued, it is horrifying that we have rendered toxic a large part of our world’s water supply. Though it’s definitely fair to point fingers at oil companies and foreign manufacturers, I am also complicit. Whether it’s an excessive use of water bottles, the (perhaps unknowing) support of companies who engage in unsafe water practices, or simply not staying informed about water issues around the world, I know I could do much better. Recognizing the international importance of water is a good first step, but now it’s time to take action.

Cultural Images

My journey as an amateur  photographer (emphasis on the amateur part) has made me acutely aware of my aesthetic preferences. As a student of contemporary art, it has long been obvious to me what types of pieces attract my eye when I visit a museum or gallery. As an observer of art, I tend to gravitate toward images that contain cultural elements, have striking (unexpected, anachronistically juxtaposed) compositional elements and that make me think about my existence or life practices in a different way. I like art to be challenging. I like to feel like I’ve stretched and absorbed after experiencing it.

© Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

Now that I am the one capturing my own photographic images, I am noticing these same tendencies in where I end up pointing my lens. As the photos load into my computer after a day of shooting, I see a (albeit rough) “collection” of cultural elements at play. I have not yet taken my new found passion for photography on a trip (though I am eagerly awaiting the chance to capture images of Los Angelino culture in a few weeks), so the photos I have taken up until this point have been of family/friend gatherings or objects/scenes/vignettes I stumble upon during my weekly photo walks.

As I skimmed through some of my photos this morning, I realized the images I have chosen to capture (well, “chosen” is a strong word…there’s been a lot of luck involved) give me new insights into the people, objects, events and practices that have comprised my culture(s) for years (at times unbeknownst to me).


I bought a fancy dancy new camera few weeks ago. It was something I really wanted for my company and myself, but I hemmed and hawed about the actual purchase for several months. I spent way too long thinking up different ways to justify the large expense (“I can write it off!” “It’s an investment.”) and lusting over different models online and at National Camera Exchange, but it took me a while to “press the shutter button” (as it were).

When I got it home, I didn’t quite know what do to. I skimmed the first few pages of the instruction manual, ate dinner staring at the sealed camera box, and then finally took both camera and lens out of their respective containers and connected them. At the risk of sounding melodramatic (or hyper-chromatic), my vision has not been the same since. Before I purchased my camera, I assumed that it would compliment my writing in a very clear-cut, fiscally advantageous kind of way (mostly travel photos to go along with my travel writing and iPhone app projects). I had no idea that my newfound love of photography would open up a whole “canister” of philosophical musings.


It’s a word we hear and use often, especially when trying to come to grips with or better understand a particular situation. While physically playing with perspective during my photo sessions, I’ve begun to meditate on perspective in the larger, more abstract sense of the term. As I position myself so that x object lines up better with x backdrop, I think about how events in my past can be better understood when examined from a different angle and perhaps juxtaposed with current events. When I swap out my telephoto lens for my fisheye, I realize that sometimes a different, “atypical” lens is needed in order to capture the unique beauty of a scene. As I crouch down and contort my shoulders to get the “perfect” shot, I am acutely aware of how uncomfortable the process of gaining perspective can be. As I edit my photos at the comfort of my laptop, I reflect on how various situations I’ve experienced seem to make so much more sense after I take a step back and play with their details or over/under expose them. When I crop a boring image to make it more interesting, I realize that perspective can lie while simultaneously revealing deeper truths.

I am confident that, along with my photography, my views on life will become more refined over time. In the meantime, I’ll just keep practicing.

Shadows and Light

Castillo de San Cristóbal is an old Spanish fort, built in 1539 to protect the city of San Juan (Puerto Rico) against attacks by competing colonial powers. It is now part of the U.S. National Park Service, and welcomes tourists to walk the grounds and duck in and out of the fort’s many nooks and crannies. Seeking refuge from the 2 o’clock sun, we spent some time in this dark, cool hallway, watching the light spill in from around the corner. Possibility, excitement, challenge, future.