The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

Goddess Durga, Halebid India, photo by Erika Burkhalter


When I was twenty-one, I attended a gathering for all of the new graduate students in the neuropsychology department. This event was held at my professor’s home, a sprawling one-story creamy-white limestone estate which, I noticed when I walked in, smelled of antique furniture and paint. Above exquisite Turkish rugs, large modern paintings hugged the walls. It seemed an interesting juxtaposition.

Dr. Abrams was from Canada and had an accent that reminded me of my Minnesotan relatives. He wore a gray sportscoat and looked every bit the respected professor — and like the antithesis of another professor I knew quite well…my father.

You see, my father was a professor of philosophy, which is a different sort of breed. If you have ever heard of the stereotypical philosophy professor who wore khaki shorts with Birkenstocks and black sports socks with those gold toes, that was my father they were describing. I loved him immensely.

When I was young, my father always had a camera slung around his neck. I used to accompany him to art shows housed everywhere from a little red schoolhouse in Naples, New York to a show on a boardwalk in Virginia Beach. I used to help him in the darkroom too. He had built one in the basement, and I loved to watch him work in the red light, projecting the image onto a sheet of photo paper. The paper was shiny on one side, and I remember you weren’t ever supposed to touch that side with your fingers or you would ruin the photo.

He used to let me use the tongs to lift the photograph out of one bathtub of developing reagent and into another. All of this was timed carefully with an old black battery-operated clock, its dials and numbers glowing fluorescent green, which ticked on like a metronome until the little silver lever would lift and ring the bell. It always gave me a jolt when that bell rang.

Photo of a photo taken by my father, Dr. John L. Pollock, outside of the little red schoolhouse in Naples, New York, where I (in the leaves) assisted him in selling his photos in an art show.

My father once had several pieces show-cased in the Eastman Kodak House, which was quite an honor. I remember getting dressed up for the event in my shiny black patent-leather shoes and this pink and white dress with an underskirt of crinoline, the layers of which swirled like the petals of a flower when you twirled. We walked through tall glass doors to a world of photos everywhere, and I was so proud of my father. I think we also went to the Lilac Festival and to the Spring House restaurant for dinner that day. You knew it was a big day when we went there, which was not very often!

At one point, probably when I was about ten years-old, my father felt he had to make a choice. He was making as much money with his photography as he was being a professor. And, for reasons I will never understand, he felt he had to choose one or the other. He picked being a professor.

So, that night, when I shook Dr. Abrams’ hand, I was nervous about the whole environment and about graduate school, in general. My palms were sticky and my brain was having trouble coordinating with my mouth. And there was a weird buzzing in my ears. I had been shy as a child, so shy that one of my teachers had told my mother that she thought I was autistic. That shyness had never really totally left me. And, here I was now, meeting my professors and the five other graduate students with whom I would be closely intertwined for the next few years.

And then…. in walked Tess, Dr. Abrams’ wife of forty years. Life a waft of perfume swirling in the air as you walk past a flower cart in India, she shifted the essence of the room. Dressed in a kaftan of aqua and sky-blue silk, with ropes of beads dangling to her navel and flame-red hair exploding from her head, she exuded eccentricity and artistry. I would find out later that the paintings on the walls were hers. A piece of me nestled into the puzzle of memories of my childhood, and I felt a little calmer. I thought, “Dr. Abrams must have a wild side to have Tess as his wife. This is going to be fine.”

But, it wasn’t really….

I tried to fit into that academic world in which I had always envisioned myself. But, they kept trying to train me to be more succinct with my words, less flowery, more scientific. I had the grades to be there. I had two nearly perfect undergraduate degrees in Chemistry and Psychology.

But, I began to wonder — why had I not pursued those writing classes back then? Writing had always been my passion.

My grandmother had a passion too — for art. She, like my dad, was a photographer. She also painted with oils, designed photoshoots for Pillsbury, and was part of the inception of the Pillsbury Dough Girl. She was the gorgeous grandma who wore that thick blue eyeliner to rim her river-blue eyes and tended towards large hoop earrings.

The night of that party, I also met Rebecca, who would turn out to be a life-long friend. We were both a little too wild-at-heart to adhere to the rules of graduate school. She might have been wilder than me though…and probably smarter too. Her purple-streaked hair and several tattoos could not disguise her intellect. Perhaps the tattoo on her ankle — a seahorse which was supposed to represent the hippocampus, a structure in the brain — might actually have given it away.

But, naïve we were….

We both departed that PhD program, after two years, with our humble Master’s Degrees, which in that world screamed, “drop-out.” She went to film school. I, the one who had always felt she had to be stable in the midst of the chaos around her, fell madly in love, gave up my fellowship, and moved to California where I worked for a start-up biotech business, then wrote a romance novel, took on two step-daughters, and now have taught yoga for twenty years and Yoga Philosophy at the University level for three.

Me, teaching yoga

I tried — really — to stay in that world of logic and stability.

But, I think Tess, that day so long ago now, influenced me far more than Dr. Abrams. An idea percolated in me and grew until it exploded out of the coffee pot. I was not a scientist, at least not formally, but an artist, and a yogi, and a writer, and a dancer, and a gardener, and a lover, and a cat rancher.

You don’t have to pick just one path. When my father was dying, he told me he wished he had done more of one thing…Photoshop. You see, he discovered digital photography in his early 60s and had become the master of what we called “Shangri-La” pictures. These are the ones where camels are perched on the edge of a volcano, inside of which a perfect blue lake reflects the sky, and a desert mud hut hugs its shores.

So, here I am now…seated on a rock in my back yard, amidst ferns and moss and camellias. My toenails are orange, and silver ankle bracelets — the ones from India that really do “tinkle” — adorn my feet. My camera is perched on a tripod, the flash oriented in the right direction, trained on the spot where the orioles will land — if they appear tonight. I have a glass of Zinfandel balanced on the rock beside me. And my cats are purring at my feet and trying to get me to watch them climb trees.

Oriole in my backyard

I am wearing, not a lab coat, but silk harem pants, which I purchased in Jaipur, and a choker of Caribbean-blue turquoise, which I purchased from a Navaho woman that year that we lived in Sedona. A notepad rests across my thighs for the muse, as she devours me, and spits out words.

There is a goddess in India named Durga. To me, her true beauty comes from when she “reclaimed” her powers from all of the gods. Draped in a column of light formed by energy beams emitted by the gods, she took back her form and attributes. And by doing that, she had an essence of Chandra, the Moon God, shining in her and, also, Surya, the sun, as well as an essence of all of the others. She reclaimed her Śrī, her radiance and lustre that illumined all who beheld her, and which proclaimed to all who encountered her that here was Durga, more dangerous and magnificent than all the gods and demons.

She wasn’t just one being, with an aspect to her — but rather, she was a special perfume made of many individual scents.

And these are the scents that I want to breathe. I want to inhale the aroma of poetry and to mind-warp on neuroscience, and to touch the borders between realities.

And I have to say, “Thank you,” to Tess.

Seated upon a rock….

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Erika Burkhalter

Erika Burkhalter

Photographer, yogi, cat-mom, lover of travel and nature, spreading amazement for Mother Earth, one photo, poem or story at a time. (MA Yoga, MS Neuropsychology)

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