The Turning of Pages

The idea for the Reliquarian began 2 years ago, seeded from a conversation between Cadence and I, it spent the next year rolling around in my thoughts, gaining little pieces of inspiration and traction; at the time I thought it would be just an image collection. After a year I realized it was a story meant for more than pictures. Right about the time it started gaining momentum and my dedication Michael deployed, and all our lives shifted dramatically… People speak often of the ultimate sacrifice a soldier and their family may make, they don’t think of all the smaller but significant sacrifices, like the fact Michael missed Steven’s first loose tooth, them riding their bikes without training wheels, learning how to swim, first days of school, a years worth of holidays and birthdays… priorities shifted and as he went to serve his country, I was left to tie a ribbon on the door, and make sure all that existed within that home remained safe, cared for, and loved in his absence for us both until he came home.


This book has special significance to me because it was the very first prop endeavor, based off the idea from a beautiful little 8 year old who innocently asked me if Monarchs are the queens of all the butterflies. I had no idea she knew the definition of a Monarchy. That moment was the conception of a butterfly queen character, and a magic book she would come across, that in opening the book the butterflies would tear themselves from pages and alight on the Monarch… Queen of the Butterflies.


I am lucky to have Mackenzie, I was especially lucky during the beginning of the deployment. She softened the sting of Michael’s absence for the kids, and in helping with the artistry she aided in keeping me distracted, late nights meant less hours in a king size bed alone when I have slept beside him for almost 15 years now.


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A great advantage to being the child of a hippie and an antique dealer is that I see the potential in everything. Cadence compared me to Tinkerbell in the new movies saying I collect lost things and everyone thinks I’m odd.


When I consider the beginning of creating a book began with creating a book, there is a parallelism that I appreciate. Most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing, I just create.


Nostalgia is a character we meet much later in the book, but she stems as a manifestation of the piece of me that loves all things that have a story, and so the book of course needed to be old, even though it was new materials.


As we go deeper into this project I notice more and more that people can’t see what I see when I start… the beginnings are met with apprehension and questioning.


I carry my share of heartaches, losses, and scars; but I think they’ve helped me find gratitude for things like enjoying the lovely sun, doing what my children consider play.


I’m constantly writing myself little notes and reminders as many of the pieces created are weeks, months or even years in the making.
It’s a labor of love to sit and hand paint hundreds of paper butterflies wings, but magic does not come from ordinary efforts. The pages were tea stained and watercolored one by one, crinkled and cut, even singed to create the aged but ethereal look I was after. There is a point with each piece I create where I start to see what was only inspiration, take shape and manifest in my project and it fills me with giddy excitement. I am afforded the gift of creating the world I’d like to live in.


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People rarely consider how much potency comes to the message by what you take away, and not just what you add. It’s the details always being overlooked… the finished butterfly book in part is so magical because of the time we took on the details, not just the binding, the roughing of the edges, the tea staining and watercoloring and singing, but that if you want a book to erupt with butterflies freed from their cage they would exist within the pages, and so the pages would have their absence. Cutting the butterflies from their pages, leaving half wings, and imprints really began to have it take shape and make it a believable piece.


One thing I am always telling my Apprentices in The Arcanum is that it’s not a lack of resources but a lack of creativity holding you back. We’d do well to reclaim our childlike minds, a box is a spaceship for my son… and when he’s done with it, it becomes the base and cover for my butterfly book, Heavy paper was colored, embossed and attached to make it more visually appealing and give a worn leather sort of feel to it. It cost me $0.00… so the arguments of not having the materials, the equipment, the funds has always carried little weight with me, and honestly makes me think less of you as an artist, which by definition are creatives.


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I’ve spent the last 5 years building my business around boudoir. I’ve loved it. I’ve been noted and applauded and recognized for it, and so I embraced it and stayed within that genre because it was where my colleagues, my fans, my friends and family saw the most potential… I’ve been blessed with some amazing clients, and I am very lucky to make such a good living doing something I genuinely love to do. However, at heart, from birth, I have been an artist, and an artist creates because they have something to say. I think for awhile, with Artistic Seductions and Elegant Boudoir Photography doing so well, and the requests to teach abounding, a full calendar and bank account, I lost sight of what I have held in high regard… that I want to create something worthy of knowing, not simply being well known. My clients have always trusted my guidance and input, but it is still a meeting of minds in concepts, and I come from a place of service towards them because they are entrusting me to create something they find beautiful and artistic, it wasn’t from the place I had always created with brushes. The first question was: “What would I create if I was free to do so?”


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I fully expected their to be some resistance and overturn in my following when I moved away from my sultry images into more artistic means, but the response was staggeringly disheartening. A selfie in my car would command 300+ likes but my first finished art pieces from the Reliquarian scraped and clawed their way towards 50 and only after multiple shares. I was assured it was the “hot girl factor” that mostly men would like it because they enjoyed the view whereas the first images were of 8 year old Cadence, in a gown with a weird door. Then an instagram photo of the butterfly book was shared and people went nuts over it. Mediocre photo quality, just sitting on my half wall… and they loved it. To this date no image, not even the Higher Learning shoot which took 3 months and 20+ people to pull off have gotten that response… So I’m curious to see how the art image with the butterfly book does as a finished piece… I’m still to no avail trying to understand the minds of the people, and what moves them.


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Butterflies Migrate. When the world turns cold and unwelcoming they turn, and return to a home they’ve never before seen, but somehow know instinctively is there, and full of their family. Throughout this project I’ve seen Lark Manor begin to become a migration point for those involved to know they are safe, be fed, be inspired, be not alone. Regain strength and courage and happiness and then forge on ahead, and it is by far the highest compliment I think we are paid as a family.


When I was a teenager and didn’t have a place that felt like home Michael’s family welcomed me into theirs. His dad was the most loving and kind person I’d ever met in a man, and I saw so much of him in his son.


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Emma. Dad thought she was really pretty. She had the kindest bedside manner I’ve ever encountered, not only with him, but with all of us. Nothing happened with the Reliquarian, nothing happened with the Arcanum, nothing happened at home, life stopped for me, and I can not count the number of hours spent in a hospital chair at a bedside in those final weeks. Loss never gets easier. It doesn’t matter if it’s sudden, or you know it’s coming, it doesn’t matter if they go in their sleep or are holding your hand, or you hear from a phone call or a doctor. But Emma… her kindness was a rock in the ocean storm of those last days, and she is an unsung hero I will always be grateful for. On the last day Matt had come home from Colorado, Megan had come up with the boys, Michael, the kids and I were there and she had a tray brought up to our room and took care of us as much as her patients… I will never forget that.


Before Michael left for Afghanistan we begged his father to come take pictures with us… I guilted him with a plea along the lines of “He has that purple heart ribbon from the first tour, you need to come be part of these family portraits before he leaves.” I remember how hard it was for him to get up the stairs, his lungs were so bad by that point. What had started as a beard of laziness became a talisman that day as he vowed not to cut it till Michael came home. It’s funny the things we adopt as superstitions. In a military family you don’t talk about the reality that a loved one might not return home… everyone thinks it, but you don’t say it. Ever. My dear friend Charles King took these for us so I could be a wife, mother, and daughter rather than a photographer… we didn’t think at the time they would be the last formal portraits we would have of Dad, but they are.


There was a character in the Reliquarian we had agreed on him playing that he won’t now, and for more time than I care to admit I couldn’t bring myself to touch the project, it’ll be longer still before I cast that role to someone else now.


“The problem is you think you have time.”




that is where Rune wrote of loneliness, afterwards she chiseled it away and left deep scars in the temple pillar so that one could touch it… One can not describe alone, one can only feel it… In moments like this you feel it. In fact it was the most alone I have ever felt.


For the last 15 years this man has been a father to me, in every sense of the word, and of all the people I have had in my life he never once showed judgement when I stumbled or fell flat on my face. He was my family. He asked me to stay with him when I was teenager to help out while Michael was in Iraq, and did it in a way that never suggested he simply knew I had no where else I called home right then. So when I was out for the symposium by the Dalai Lama on how creativity inspires compassion and he called asking me to come home I was at the airport within the hour… mostly because he was the kind of man that would never have asked, I can’t remember him ever asking anyone for anything of significance actually… Everyone told me to stay out and write, to enjoy vacation, that he would be here when I came home, and he would have been… but those extra few days were the difference between coherent conversation, and moments spent together as opposed to moments simply spent sitting near to him, but alone.


Emma had done the day shift, and the night nurse had far less compassion and bedside manner. He wore this wretched mask that essentially sucked the air out and forced it into his lungs, it was the only way he could breathe. Being claustrophobic he hated it. He woke up around two and sat straight up. He hadn’t pulled himself up of his own accord in the last few days, at that point we were feeding him because he couldn’t lift the spoon. I took the mask off as he pawed at it, and the nurse immediately came in to reattach it and he said no. It was the only thing keeping him alive, and it had been a fight between how uncomfortable and painful it was, and him knowing he couldn’t survive without it. “Jess… no more” he said. I asked him if he knew what that meant and he nodded. We left the mask off. He looked at the pictures I had hung on the wall “I’m missing.” he said. “No you’re not dad, you’re right there.”


“No, my Steven, my dad… If I’m there I’m not here, if I’m here I’m not there… I’m missing.” Our son had been namesaked for Michael’s brother who passed away as a child. I realized with us he was the Pop pop, the oldest of three generations. When he moved on to where we go after this he would be met by his father and his son, still 3 generations, and he could not be part of both.


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No one has ever seen this photo until now. I can not tell you why I took it… It was a long night. After we had removed the respirator the nurse came in once more to tell him to put it back on… He looked at us.
“Everyone is dead here except for you.” I asked her to leave it off. The nurse made a comment about no more sleeping pills for him and huffed out of the room. He looked behind me to the corner. I pointed to where he was looking and said “Do you recognize them?” he nodded. “Are they here for you?”
“Some for me, some for others… You have to hold my hand, if you don’t I have to go with them. Keep me here.”


Perhaps it was the painkillers and sleep aids, the lack of oxygen to his brain… it’s possible… probable even that he was hallucinating, only partially lucid; but I sat in that chair the rest of the night holding his hand. In the absence of the respirator mask, and with the aid of pain medicine he held onto my hand and slept… so quietly and still. I didn’t realize until this that it had been almost a decade since I had seen him sleep soundly, unlabored, and my heart broke for his silent war he had been in against his body… I had promised him just a few days earlier that I was going to take care of Michael, of all of them, when he said he was worried about them. He said “I know you are, I just want to be here to make sure you do.” The next day he had accepted he wouldn’t be, and then he seemed almost impatient for it to be over. He grew more agitated and restless, and told anyone that entered the room to pull the plug, although there was no plug to actually pull. As if an outward expression of what was within a violent storm started outside. The skies turned green and there was lightening and loud claps of thunder. I was looking at the rain on the window when he said “Jess I want to go now. Right now.” I came over to the bed and put a hand on him, “Soon dad.” I offered with as much comfort as I could muster. “No Now!” he insisted angrily and with more volume than we thought he could offer at that point. At the exact moment the words left his lips the power in the entire hospital went out and for a few seconds we were in darkness until the back up generators came on. I looked at Emma with the same face she echoed back to me, and more of me than not expected that I would find him lifeless when I looked at him. It was like out of a movie. He looked equally surprised as well. I can’t help but think in moments like these that we are entirely unaware of our own power.


I think this photo will always make me cry… but I will also say that all my greatest work has come from moments I was madly in love or desperately heart sick. Even though it is the most despondent emotion one could feel it was incredibly powerful, and it came from a deep place of love… I suppose that is why I took a final photograph of him.


For years I worked with Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a photography organization that provides services to families of terminal newborns… I have experienced a lot of death in the moments of dying. It’s different when it’s someone you know and love. I thought my experience made me the best option to be there in the final moments, and I knew he did not want his children’s last memories to be those hours before the end. While he had always treated me and loved me as a daughter, being a parent now I understand the difference when it is your blood through their veins, and the want to always save them from hurting, especially when you will be the cause of their suffering. For someone who fancies herself a writer, there are no words in those moment, nothing eloquent or poetic, only the reoccurring thought of “I love you… I’m right here, you’re not alone.” Your heart breaks into a thousand pieces and turns to dust, you think certainly yours must stop beating right alongside theirs, that their last breath will also be your own. But it doesn’t.


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I have in later years come to be grateful for my father leaving when I was little. I desperately tried to mend fences and build bridges, and suffered all the insecurities and guilt and heartache that little girls go through without their father’s affection. In hindsight though it made room for Nicholas who came into my life when I was five and never left, even after him and my mother were no longer together. One phrase I always remember and that he still frequently uses whenever things are down, or hard… “It’s difficult, it hurts, I’m tired, i’m sore, there’s a lot of ground left to cover…” and he would always follow that with “Still we persist”


The world keeps moving and life goes on as if it didn’t feel this great emptiness manifest suddenly in its midst. I think that’s the cruelest part… that nothing stops, it doesn’t even hesitate… but then perhaps that’s necessary, that in the moments we most feel like ceasing, like curling up in a ball somewhere dark and never facing the day, we go on because that is all we can do. Where one life is drawing to its close another is just beginning, even in our own family, and we continue on, because it is all we can do.


Familiar, from family. What we know, what we trust, where we feel safe to be at our most vulnerable… This was the first time I lost someone as an adult, where it was my responsibility to handle the responsibilities and details. To plan the memorial… to retrieve the ashes. I found myself feeling incredibly lost and alone, sitting with this white box that was much heavier than I expected it to be, that supposedly held all that was once this man I so loved and had seen only days before. I ended up driving to the house I had first lived in with him and his family… it’s stood empty since he left. I couldn’t help going inside, even though it was no longer mine to enter. It was so empty. Dusty. Forgotten. Falling apart and decrepit, and nature was reclaiming it as the ivy broke through the windows and the squirrels and mice scurried through the walls. I ventured up the grand staircase in the front {the servant stairs down to the kitchen had always scared Megan and I.} This house must have been so beautiful in its glory, but even when we were there it was so full of character. I walked into the room and had completely forgotten that I had painted the walls when we had Cadence… a decade ago. If anyone besides me ever wanders into that house again they’ll never know all the memories it holds, just as we didn’t know those that came before… I think I was just desperate to find something familiar, a place I might feel him… but I didn’t. It was just something else fading into oblivion that I could do nothing to save… the familiar was now foreign to me.


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A philosophy class I took once asked what the opposite of Death was. Several of us chimed in “Life” in unison. He asked us to define Death. We came to the agreement it was “the ending of life, to not be alive any more.” He asked if it would be fair then to assume the opposite would be “the beginning of life, to become alive.” When we nodded he said “then death’s opposite would be birth… Life has no opposite.” That has always stayed with me. Within two weeks we were morning the loss of Michael’s father, and celebrating the birthday of his son… and life continued on, as it always does; unopposed.


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If you have ever had the experience of living by a hospital bedside in final days you’ll know that your best friend becomes the vending and coffee machine, even though it lies about what delicious coffee tastes like. You become a ghost in the halls, the nurses stop acknowledging you because you are as likely to be there as the furniture and monitors. We discuss mind body links… but when you are emotionally exhausted you feel it physically; everything shuts down within you. Eventually you get up and walk around the halls simply to feel movement. I kept walking to the window, which had a lovely view of the parking lot, that was if you could see over the roof which was covered in rubber shavings… but in the middle was this lonely little fierce spirit. Growing. Unwilling to adhere to logic or the restrictions it should be held by, it was living anyway, flourishing, against all odds.


In meditation they often tell you to find something to focus on and bring your energy towards when you need to center. As silly as it sounds when I took a teary eyed walk and glanced out the window I felt less alone and more of a sense of peace. Others saw a relentless weed, and I saw a glimmer of hopeful life while facing death.


We’re so desperate after loss. I think photographs allow us to return to the time we lost. As we went through dad’s things I came across this photo and found some semblance of myself within a moment of his, and I was grateful.


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I cried to Sarah in the days after. I’m lucky for the friends I have. I’ve never been more in need of believing that we exist beyond this life; and I couldn’t feel any connection to him. I felt incredibly unresolved and severed. I think when we most have a need to believe is when we most question faith. “I don’t feel him.” was a resounding thought echoing in my head. Days went by, we had a small memorial for him here at Lark Manor. He did not want a viewing and traditional funeral, he told us to cremate him and have a viking funeral on our pond with his ashes. We even bought a little boat for it, though we ended up not doing that the day of the service. Our house was filled with hugs, food, and family. We told stories, shared jokes, remembered, cried and laughed. Michael’s battle buddy from his first tour came down to fold and present the flag, he was given his last honors and we were both full of love, pride, and deep sorrow. Michael spoke of his father, and if he was there and heard him, I know he would have been incredibly proud of his children and grandchildren; and grateful to those who loved us through a very hard time.


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Some time ago I had written a post on Facebook to Cadence and Steven, for if they found this later. I’d forgotten about it. When we picked up dad’s things I was looking through his laptop for email addresses of accounts we needed to close and take care of, and on the desktop was a letter to his children… he couldn’t find the words, and so he borrowed some of mine to my children. I was more than half way through the letter when I recognized my own sentiments. It was the most heart wrenching gift he left me, as a writer and his daughter… we never worried about the ‘in law’ additive. I think in my wildest dreams, any awards or accolades I would be given, any notoriety or achievements earned by my writing… that this will stand as the highest honor I could receive.


That day I was coming home and on my porch were several bottles and jars. Last year I had started growing apples from seeds, a project he had sent me on how to do it. I had forgotten the saplings outside during the first frosts and in the spring none of them had come back… but there in the middle of July out of nowhere this one little tree suddenly burst into life. I took it from the jar and planted it in the little boat we had set aside and then decided against for the viking funeral… it has become my sort of living elegy for him… he always made the very best apple pies. As fall comes now and the trees shed their leaves I find myself apprehensive, awaiting it’s return in spring, fearful it won’t survive. If it does I think we shall plant it in the grounds here, and in time make apple pie from it’s fruit… it sounds like a good way to honor him.


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The day before he went into the hospital for the last time we were chatting about the Reliquarian, and he said “Well Girl, you better hurry and finish this damn book, I want to see the movie before I die.” Memories and thoughts of him show up in unexpected moments and places, even social media algorithms offer little pieces of him in bittersweet doses… and I think through it’s failure or success, those words will haunt me always. That I couldn’t give him that promise. For weeks it crippled me, and I couldn’t bring myself to work on any of the art pieces, do any of the shoots, or write a single word.


Finally because I have good friends, good people who have invested their time and energy into this project and me as well; they forced me to get to work, despite my feeble continued arguments. I was waiting for a sign, of life, of forgiveness, that he was with me, that I should still do this, that I wasn’t wasting my time, that it was ok if I failed… that it was ok if I succeeded. I received nothing. We did the shoot anyway, hair and makeup, and fitting our Cadydid into a dress that was quite snug, yet another reminder that time is passing all too quickly. We took her into the forgotten gardens as the sun was sinking, the light was beautiful. “Cady you want to look at the book in wonder, like you opened it up and all these magic butterflies just erupt from the page and are fluttering away from the book ok?” I instructed as we meandered over and set up. Sarah and Abi were with me that day, and one of them had made a comment about butterflies being spirit guide, a messenger from those who’ve passed on.


I picked up my camera and looked through the viewfinder and felt a little tickle on my fingers as they turned the lens. I hate bugs… it is my worst phobia. Because many of the trees in the forgotten gardens are fruit trees we always have bees buzzing around, especially in the summer when the fruit over ripens and becomes soft. My first thought was terror, followed by ‘don’t drop the camera’ But when I looked up from the view finder, it wasn’t a bee, but a butterfly sitting on my finger, fluttering it’s wings. It quickly left my fingers then and fluttered over to Cadence circling her and landing on her and the pages of the book.


The Butterfly stayed the entire shoot, fluttering around, alighting on different parts of the book. Cadence’s expressions were so moving because they were genuinely sincere and truthful… all of us were lost in the surreal experience we were sharing. I can’t help but feel that I do have a small piece of dad now captured within this story. After we were done Abi and Sarah took Cadence in for makeup and wardrobe change so we could shoot Adjudicated Virulence that night, and I sat with the book in the last light of day, and still the butterfly stayed. I cried, and said thank you.


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Three has long been a sacred number… mother, maiden, and crone, father, son, and holy ghost, past, present, and future, birth, life, death. Three holds a lot of weight within the story line too, and I can’t help but notice life imitating art. We begin this year as the third year of the Reliquarian project, we have the last 3 years celebrated and planned the upcoming year with a birthday reliquarian party… this year I celebrate my 33rd birthday. Since dad’s passing I have shared 3 finished pieces, it took me 3 months after his death to post this photo, and there was 3 weeks where I couldn’t make up my mind between the top 3 images from this shoot, which was the best. It ends with 3 words that carry all the power in the universe… I love you.


There will be no excerpt as I am currently rewriting this piece, so for the moment this ends here. A photo in memory of William Anthony Lark, who was a great kindred spirit, a father, and a friend.



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