That's a good question. For more than 20 years friends of mine may have wondered about the whereabouts of the Lee Kravitz they once knew -- a guy who had been curious, adventurous and open to new experiences as a young man. Like many workaholics, I spent most of my time between ages 30 and 55 on the phone or in meetings, fitting people and ideas into the predictably narrow construct that served my job. I let important things slip, and shaded my eyes from anything new or potentially distracting.
The only exception was when my children were very, very young and I found myself seeing the world through their wide-awake-to-everything eyes. ("To see a world in a grain of sand," as William Blake wrote, "And a heaven in a wild flower.") But, for the most part, my grown-up way of looking at the world was guarded and tired. Then I lost my job and was forced to take stock of my life, which led me to the photographs on this page and to the following realization: Unfinished business isn't simply about rectifying your wrongs; it's about rediscovering parts of yourself you may have neglected over the years.
To understand what I mean, read on. And if you read on till the end of this post, you'll get a chance to enter the "Where in the World Was Lee?" contest and win an autographed copy of my book.
In my early twenties I purchased a used Land Rover with two friends from college and traveled overland from London to Calcutta for nearly a year. To chronicle our journeys, I took along two cameras -- a Yashika twin-lens reflex that I picked up for $100 on New York's Lower East Side, and a 35mm Agfaflex my father loaned me.
By the time we got to India, both cameras were so battered by dust, rain and my constantly dropping them that I had trouble opening them up, adjusting their focus, getting film in and out of them, and seeing through their lenses. I had no idea whether the cameras were letting in the right amount of light, or whether they were capable of yielding any images at all. Still, I kept clicking away. Even if they didn't work, their ability to frame what I was seeing helped me to navigate the streets of Teheran, Kabul, Quetta, Delhi, and Bombay, where kids loved being photographed and shopkeepers became friendlier if I showed a genuine interest in photographing their wares. Also, without my cameras. I may have been less able to face the harsh realities we encountered along the way: for example, India's poverty, which was a little less overwhelming when seen through the viewfinder of an Agfaflex.
One of my favorite picture-taking techniques was to stand in a single location and take photographs in every direction -- to the north, south, east and west of me. According to the log I kept, the images on this page were taken on February 17, 1976, while I was standing in the middle of a public square whose identity will remain secret for reasons that will soon become clear. Over the course of an hour I shot an entire roll of black-and-white film -- 36 pictures. Six months later I developed the film in a tiny darkroom I built for myself and other itinerant photographers at Kibbutz Ein Gev in Israel. I can still remember the feeling I had when these images began appearing in the pans of developing chemicals: It was as though I was seeing the blind man selling bird feed, the portrait photographer and his camera, the man crossing the bridge over the cow's head, the huge building and black cat in the midday sun, for the first time.
As photographs, they were flawed. But the defects of the pictures gave them a slightly alien quality that was truer to my experience of traveling than any less grainy images would have been. To commemorate that fact, I selected 16 postcard-sized prints from the roll of film and taped them together into a "photo quilt," which I displayed on the wall of the shack I shared with a guitar-playing Australian. Later, when I returned to the States, I decorated the walls of various low-rent apartments I lived in in Cleveland and New York with the quilt. My wife-to-be asked me to take it dwn when she moved in with me; so I took the quilt apart and placed the photos in a box with other mementos from the days when I traveled the globe in search of adventure.
Where in the world was Lee? The first person who can identify the city, country and also the square where I was standing when I took these photographs will get an autographed copy of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things. Here are some hints: it was close to a river that marks one of the world's most important crossroads. It is somewhere between Budapest and Calcutta. It was the capital of a major religion and great empire. Not far from where I was standing, there is a famous steam bath where the attendants pummel the stress out of you.
This post is also about the parts of ourselves that get neglected and forgotten over the years. As I got older and more responsible I grew less curious and adventurous. I also stopped taking photographs, an activity that had given me great pleasure when I was younger. Once I identified this forgotten part of me, at age 55, it was easier for me to incorporate it back into my life. Sometimes I'll stand in one place (with or without a camera) and turn north, south, east and west to take in the beautiful fall scenery. I find myself taking more time to talk with people I meet on the subway or at the dog run. It's amazing how much you can learn about people when you talk to them about politics, their children or their dogs. (This will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has a dog.) As long as you have an open and curious mind -- and don't go around placing people and ideas into narrow constructs -- you can find adventure anywhere.
Which brings me to Part II of the "Where in the World was Lee?" contest. This part isn't about me -- it's about you. Is there a part of yourself (a quality or way you see and interact with the world) that you've neglected but want to resuscitate? Is there a passion you once had that could add a dimension now to your life? I'll respond to everyone who writes in and reward one of you with a signed copy of UNFINISHED BUSINESS.
Thank you for being part of the growing conversation that feeds this blog.
CLICK HERE FOR THE WINNERS OF PARTS i AND II OF THE "WHERE IN THE WORLD WAS LEE?" CONTEST.
Lee Kravitz is the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things (Bloomsbury). Click here to share a story with the author. The best reader stories will be included in the paperback edition of the book, which is coming out in May 2011.