A Period of Juvenile Prosperity: Musings on Mike Brodie’s Photography
We don’t own our suffering. It feels like we do. Like it belongs to us. As if it were a lump of clay, sculpted by our own hands, each curve and indentation revealing the pain moving through us. But even though suffering feels so personal, like it was uniquely tailored to hurt each one of us exactly so, it’s more the same as everyone else’s pain than it is different. Grief, broken hearts, stubbed toes — none of us is immune.
Suffering is more a condition of being human than a personal affliction; what is personal, however, is what we do with it.
What piece of art do we shape from our lump of clay? That’s our freedom.
I’ve always been fascinated by alchemy — or, stories of personal transformation — people turning the ropes of bondage into spools of gold.
When I look at Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity , that’s what I see: alchemic reactions. Each shot captures beauty exploding out of suffering, like a dandelion breaking through the crack of a sidewalk: so tough, yet only a breath away from blowing into the wind.
In 2003, Mike Brodie dropped out of high school in Pensacola, Florida to light out for the territory. Carrying little else but a camera until 2009, he jumped trains to see where they took him. Along the way, he met and photographed other kids who shared the same dirt-faced defiance, post-punk aesthetic, and yearning for adventure.
We don’t know each kid’s story of origin, but really, does it matter? Won’t each one just be a slight variant of the same lump of insufferable clay? What’s more intriguing is the choice each of these kids made to ride the rails anywhere rather than stay somewhere.
Destination unimportant; transformation everything.
My own hobo dreams started when I was almost ten years old. I wanted to run away with my Siberian Husky, Sasha, because neither of us could change our nature, no matter how good we tried to be.
One day, when Sasha was around six years old, my mom brought home a kitty for my sister’s third birthday, who we named Jessie. The new kitty made everyone excited, especially Sasha, who had a very fierce prey drive. In fact, she often escaped the backyard and went on murderous sprees around the neighborhood — a rooster, chickens, cats, birds, rumor has it even a small dog once fell victim. Yet, my parents thought they could “break” her of this instinct with corporeal punishment. Sadly, that didn’t work, and neither did locking her in a dog-run.
A month later, as I was opening a can of dog food in the kitchen, I heard a high-pitched scream followed by a guttural moan come from the backyard. My heart sank into my stomach and, instantly, I wanted to throw it right back up. I knew what happened. Sasha had climbed over the chainlink fence and killed Jessie. My dad and I went running into the backyard, and my dad grabbed a baseball bat, presumably to kill Sasha. I chased after him and begged him not to do it, and by some miracle, he had mercy.
After that, however, he found other ways to punish her. If we were driving, he might yell for everyone to put on their seatbelt (that was before it was law in California) and then slam on the brakes so Sasha would crash into the back of his seat. Or, feeling less inspired, he might just kick her as she walked by.
I felt sad Sasha killed Jessie, but I also really loved her. Sure, she was a terrible dog, but I didn’t fault her that. After all, what was a mush-dog, closer to a wolf than a Shitzu, who was bred to pull a sled thousands of miles across the Siberian tundra, doing locked in a backyard in Southern California? She never fit in with us. And, by a similar logic, I was a terrible kid, who made mom and dad hit and kick her, too — but who knew where I was meant to be? Who knew where I fit in? Probably not Siberia. Maybe France’n’Disco?
Regardless, Sasha and I had to go.
My idea was to live in the crawl space under people’s houses, cook porridge in a metal cup atop a Folger’s coffee can, and make money walking dogs across the Lower 48. I don’t know where I got the idea. Maybe it was some kind of cellular American memory from the Great Depression when people left the big cities in droves looking for work across the prairies. Food and opportunity were scarce amongst them, but a code of camaraderie filled the vacuum as the hobos moved west, riding the rails their predecessors, the displaced Civil War veterans, helped to build.
But my hobo dreams didn’t start to materialize until I was in my early twenties in San Francisco, or France’n’Disco as I used to say. If someone had taken a picture of me then, when I was moving between residential hotels in the Tenderloin, strung out on heroin, I bet most people would be unable to see the particular beauty of a person-in-progress.
Most people would miss that behind the scowl and blood stains was a bright girl studying the complexities of human frailty from life and literary greats like Flannery O’Connor.
Instead, like a half-formed human trapped in a mason jar, a homunculus pickled in heroin, I elicited horrified curiosity from people, but rarely compassion.
So, when one day a small band of colorful hippies approached me on Haight Street to ask if I needed to go to the hospital, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Normally, I’d say “I’m fine” despite my obvious distress, but recognizing something akin in them, I confessed to having cotton fever, a kind of blood-poisoning caused by an endotoxin in the cotton I used to filter my heroin. I was burning up and shivering uncontrollably, freezing with fever, but I’d had that reaction enough times to know that it would pass within a few hours. No need to go to the hospital where I’d probably just get arrested anyway.
A cherub-faced girl with blue eyes, a pierced nose, and tousled brown hair took off her hoodie and put it on me. Another oddly tanned (dirty?) kid gave me his flannel shirt. Then a blond, lumpy-headed, DIY dread-locked boy with the translucent skin you expect to see in San Francisco rolled up with a shopping cart, and they all picked me up and put me in it. Before I knew it, I was buried beneath a mountain of sweet and stinky, patchouli-skunk scented clothing being wheeled around Golden Gate Park.
They pushed me along the park’s long trails as if I were a cart of groceries, occasionally checking in to see if the feverish melon had improved. They chatted, stopped once to smoke weed, and joked amongst themselves while I tried to hug myself still and enjoy the ride. I liked overhearing their inane chatter in my semi-delirious condition — I swear, green M+Ms make you horny, one of them insisted — but I couldn’t wait to get away. Something about their jocular tone made me feel lonely, like April’s cruel flowers in The Wasteland…breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.
My body cooled about an hour later. A hot howling tornado that tears in and out of your blood stream, cotton fever seems to leave almost as fast as it comes on.
The hippie kids dropped me off where they’d found me in front of Amoeba records, where I’d planned to sell some CDs I’d stolen from my asshole dealer earlier that day. I very rarely stole, it wasn’t my style, but somehow I considered this more like a well-earned cash-back policy than actual theft. Besides, is it considered stealing when you’re stealing stolen merchandise? Amoeba thinks not.
A few minutes after the hippies were out of view, I realized I was still wearing the cherub-faced girl’s hoodie. I remember feeling happy, not because I particularly wanted it, but because I’d have a reason to approach her if I saw her again.
Hey, I have your sweatshirt, want to be friends? I didn’t have much else to offer.
I hadn’t thought of the hippies in years, but when I saw Mike Brodie’s photos, they popped up in my mind like a community of dandelions scattered across a green grassy hill.
Make a wish…
I’ll never know how much that experience influenced the cascade of decisions I made shortly thereafter to go back to Los Angeles and join a recovery group. We rarely know the inner workings of our own minds, especially not in medias res. But, in retrospect, the mystery of how I went from being a self-imposed pariah, terrified of and perpetually disappointed by human connection, to bravely introducing myself as an addict to a room full of strangers might have something to do with what I experienced that day.
Mike Brodie’s photos capture what was missing in my fledgling hobo life, what I lacked to fully realize my freedom, what I needed — and eventually found — to shape my lump of clay into a beautiful piece of art: community.
Like Mike Brodie (and every other creative-cum-alchemist on the planet), I fashion art from my existential suffering. I don’t have photos from that time of my life, but I share my stories through writing. Words are the midwife I choose to deliver beauty and compassion from the struggle to free myself from things that don’t make sense, like childhood pain and unrequited love. But writing is not my only art; it’s just one way I reach out.
The desire to keep moving never left me, and fortunately I fell irrevocably in love with and married a fellow untethered soul. Together, in flux, exploring our inner and outer limits, heeding the call of the road, we live a unicorn lifestyle of intimacy and adventure. Nomadly in love, that’s our art.
Compassionate honesty is another art I practice ardently. I bare my vulnerability and hold others in a safe space to bare theirs, because love — both falling in and staying in — is so much easier when we’re naked.
And what of love?
Love is the greatest art, and mothering my daughter Soleil is my finest expression of this most potent alchemy. I give my daughter my open heart and, in turn, I free the wounded child who’s been hiding in it for most of my life.
Hand in hand, we go.
Destination unimportant; transformation everything.
To see more of Mike Brodie’s photography, click here: http://mikebrodie.net