By Aimee Liu
When California locked down last March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the physical world seemed to shrink overnight. To contain the virus, we were instructed not to travel unless we were frontline workers. Many of us were confined to our homes. If we went outside for exercise, we were to stay in our immediate neighborhoods. Within these restrictions, space took on new dimensions, new urgency as an existential need. The distance between near and far seemed to fluctuate, requiring constant negotiation.
In this context, photography became one of my primary survival tools. To maintain my sanity, I’d go out each day to explore a new walk around East Venice, where I live. My territory stretched from Mar Vista to the beach, from the pavement to the sky. Light, I soon learned, was a magical ally, conferring a sense of the infinite even to the most unyielding barriers, transforming the spatial contours so that the whole world seemed present in a single moment.
The lens of a camera, the tools of editing, can push space away or bring it closer. And a funny thing happens when you bring it closer: nearness turns into a whole new kind of distance.
As I walked my neighborhood, I found space expanding whenever I looked closer.
I discovered adjacent universes within the rusting surface of an abandoned truck.
Hidden caverns and unearthly terrains between the leaves of a giant agave.
Worlds within worlds opened up, replacing the claustrophobia of lockdown with a sense of wonder at the endless possibilities of inner space.
Shadows, too, made distance plastic, deepening surfaces, playing with form…
transforming an ordinary garden wall into a labyrinth.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
So wrote the Japanese Buddhist priest Dogen in the 13th century.
It’s still true today. Within that dewdrop, near and far are one.
William Blake understood, too:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Look closer. See farther. Practice the alchemy of vision.
And almost anything seems possible.
Once upon a time I was a painter and discovered the visual mystery of reflection.
The surface of a teapot, the shimmered realms within a glass of water, the elusive distance of mirrored space inside a windowpane.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that photographs can capture this mystery, too.
And then there were the endless possible combinations of near and far…
The color blue…
Celestial bodies straining to meet the earth.
And oh! The clouds!
Those majesties of the universe.
So near, yet far,
The horizon is the line where distance splits,
the vastness we can touch meeting the space forever beyond our grasp.
Add ocean to the equation, and
you are set free.
We can make it from here to there.
From near to far.
The secret is all around us.
It’s not even secret at all.
Aimee Liu is the author of the new novel Glorious Boy and many other books of fiction and nonfiction. Her articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Ms., Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program at Port Townsend, WA.