Life in Lima and more–from Intensity Without Mastery’s Michelle Cole

For my next two posts here at Rust Belt Girl, I am honored to present Michelle Cole, a fellow Ohio native, who blogs at Intensity Without Mastery. I first stumbled upon Michelle’s photographs of the city where she lives: Lima, Ohio. I have posted before about abandonment photography, or “ruin porn,” as leaving me cold. Michelle’s photography, on the other hand, struck me with its depth of feeling, and I knew I had to learn more about the woman behind the lens. She has agreed to guest post here at my blog, and I’m so grateful.

As Michelle will tell, life in Lima—like in many Rust Belt places—has seen its share of hard times: leaving and loss. There are also sweet spots.

Between her photographs and candid backstory, Intensity Without Mastery moves me with its intense truthfulness:

My life was a mess of attrition and despair until the Recession. As the economy crumbled, I got better, and I’m uncertain why. … In this blog, I explore my sometimes incomplete recovery from mental illness. While I am candid about this aspect of my health, I also explore a hodgepodge of interests, such as photography …

Michelle describes for Rust Belt Girl life in Lima, Ohio:

Lima is situated near the midpoint between Detroit, Michigan, and Cincinnati, Ohio [cities along the north and south edges of America’s post-industrial heartland]. My family has deep roots in the Lima area, but I did not move here until I was nine years old, in 1981. I did spend a total of five years outside Lima in my late teens and twenties, pursuing my education, first, and starting a family, second. By the way, both of these ventures were failures in a conventional sense. I didn’t get a degree, and I became a single parent, which begins in heartbreak unless that’s the outcome intended from the start. I didn’t truly feel at home in Lima until I had failed to create the sort of life I envisioned for myself when I was young. I think that sentiment is key to describing what Lima is like.

The longer I live in Lima, the more I get the sense that this city is full of people who once wished they had landed somewhere else more replete with wealth and growth, somewhere the countryside is perpetually bulldozed to make way for more homes, stores, and schools. Reality eventually tempers these dreams for those who don’t have the skills or wealth to move away.

abandoned storefront in Lima by Michelle Cole
Abandoned storefront in Lima, Ohio, 2006 by Michelle Cole

There’s a lot of healthy cynicism in those who inhabit the “post-fantasy” world of surviving in Lima. I found a perfect portrayal of it in a now-old article from The Onion (which, by the way, started in the bleeding edge of the Rust Belt: Madison, Wisconsin) called “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size.” This little satire is a clever critique of the conventional American urge toward that which is big, bright, and new.

It is necessary to reject those sort of values to be happy here.

The city of Lima has lots of reminders of its past glory days, from abandoned homes to empty or underused factories on the outskirts of town. Nowhere is this more evident than our downtown area. Where once finely dressed shoppers and business people trod the streets, now there are people who were broken and couldn’t quite be put back together. That’s another reason I feel at home in Lima.

Lima street scene by Michelle Cole
Lima, Ohio, street scene by Michelle Cole

I am one of those broken people, and when I am feeling well, I am proud of all I do. When I am depressed, I feel a bit resentful of rising to the occasion despite having some disabilities. I am hearing impaired. I have arthritis and spinal stenosis, along with a long history of clinical depression that’s been treated with varying degrees of success. This situation is not rare in people who’ve stayed in Rust Belt towns like Lima that are long past their prime. I encounter so many people who are trying to get by despite their medical problems. It’s so common that at times qualifying for disability benefits is like crossing a finish line, a mission accomplished instead of a surrender.

I’d be remiss not to mention that there is an enduring vitality to Lima despite its long-term decline in wealth and population. There’s a longstanding effort to revitalize the city and improve our local schools. We have a local symphony and community colleges.

There’s also the treasure I see in the fundamental dignity of all people as they go about the business of living, whether rich or poor, old or young.

No matter how cynical or depressed I feel at times, I see a beauty and notice innate intelligence and wit in every person I encounter. When I drive through the city of Lima or walk some of its streets with my camera in hand, I often think of the following lines from Walt Whitman from “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:

“There was never more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now;

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

Part two, from photographer Michelle Cole at Intensity Without Mastery coming soon. Visit her wonderful site for stunning photography and more.

What is your song? Leaving? Loss? The sweet spots? How do you capture “home” in your stories? How do images factor in?