Thursday, July 25, 2013

Benched #11: the big dig

The usual busy street in the center of this small town was eerily quiet.  Except for the birds and the distant sound of the re-routed traffic, one would have thought the place was deserted.  Not a person was in sight.  It was like a ghost town.

That’s what tearing up the main street in a small town will do.  The bulldozers were motionless in the early evening, when I found my bench along the cordoned sidewalk.  The pavement had been stripped away, revealing pale, rough dirt, bleached by the summer sun.  The whole street seemed to be holding its breath.  I kept waiting for Clint Eastwood to deliberately saunter down the center of it, spurs jangling.  



The next day, I found myself thinking about excavation in an entirely new light.  I was sitting on a bench outside of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, anticipating a walk through its impressive displays of antiquities with my daughter.  Archeology is excavation with a different purpose.  It digs to unearth treasures.  Excavation unearths to rebuild.

There are situations in life that expose what is under our workday demeanor.  I don’t know if any of us enjoy the experience.  It’s a rare person who wants to see what impatience or pettiness or selfishness lurks beneath the road we’ve built for speed and volume.  But it’s a wise person who recognizes the benefit of having a view down through the layers.  The excavator knows that a good foundation makes a solid street.  The archeologist knows the treasures are subterranean.

It’s like a peanut. Or so says an ancient African proverb.

In the museum, I found a display of brass weights, made to balance against gold dust in transactions in ancient North Africa.  In a delightful spin of creativity, these artisans decided to sculpt their weights into visual reminders of guiding proverbs.  Though it was the least impressive sculpture, a brass peanut caught my eye because of the proverb it represented:

“Marriage is like a groundnut; you must crack it to see what’s inside.”

The explanation of the proverb said that it meant that one can’t know until one tries.  But I see a connection to digging.  There are situations that put pressure on us – whether in a marriage or not – and only that pressure can get to what matters. The shell is nothing.  The peanut is the prize.

I feel very much that I’m going through an excavation right now. Digging to the foundation.  Trying to get to the prize.  There is an expectation in the process that makes the tough going easier.  Back to the abandoned street: laying right in front of me, unnoticed for some time, was a hose curled between two potted plants.  I like that hose.  It tells me that someone is not just enduring the repaving.  He or she has the end insight – when people will once again walk along the sidewalk and enjoy the blossoms. Call it a hose of hope.

In all this, there is a purpose to the upheaval.  An end to the trouble.  A better road.  A treasure to hold.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Benched #10: the memory box

If trees could laugh, this one would have an evil chuckle. 

Grace had pointed it out to me, overhanging the far side of the wide stream, festooned with bobbers.  “They look like Christmas ornaments,” she said.

The tree took me back to past scenes, like those dramatic camera swooshes on 30 Rock.  First, I could picture myself on the forward thwart of a small boat, embarrassed by my poor cast as my patient, silent father maneuvered us in close enough to disentangle my spinner from a similar tree.  Then, swoosh – I saw myself standing along the Schuylkill River, with my two young sons watching me mutter as yet another lure snagged or was lost.  As one heavy Red Devil disengaged from my poorly-tied knot in mid cast and sailed out to plop unhindered into the distant water, Nate said, “Dad, you’re not very good at this, are you?”

Back on the shore of today's stream, Nathan interrupted my mental swooshing by saying to his brothers, “It seems like much of our time fishing when we were young, Dad was getting our lures out of trees.”  The comment surprised me – simply because it was a completely different lens to a shared past.

Memories are like boxes of trinkets. They’re not all valuable.  They’re just all special.  But boxes not only keep things in, they leave things out. Our memories are but a very select picking of moments from our lives.  So much is lost.  And even what is kept is often changed in the process.

When we get together as a family, we spend a lot of time taking those trinkets out of our boxes and comparing them to how others have kept them.  Memories are revived, reconsidered, cross-referenced, and ultimately, celebrated.  That’s what family and old friends help to do: celebrate the key moments in life – not only in the creating of them but in reflecting on them throughout the following years.

Which brings me to the bench.  We had hiked to Jones Dam in Laurel Hill State Park and sat for a bit in the beauty of the woods and falling water.  I didn’t have time to linger on the bench.  The others were waiting.  Nathan, following his sister-in-law’s example, had crossed the rocks at the top of the dam.  I returned in time to get a snapshot of him as he caught his balance, mid-stream. Looking at the picture, he seemed to be blessing a waiting crowd as he walked, not in the water, but on it.

Nathan walking on the water. I think that’s how I’m going to remember this.

Until someone remembers it differently.

Benched #9: what the future holds

I can't believe that I'm seeing this.

Sitting on a bench, along Battery Park, watching the sun paint the sky over the distant high-rises, it seems almost too good to be true.  I'm here for work.  Alison literally came along for the ride -- and what a ride it was: from southwestern PA up to Grove City College in northwestern PA, across to our home town to drop off Alison's mom and straight from home into the city.  But despite the hassle, here is a magical moment -- the sun gleaming off of the new World Trade building behind us, New Yorkers and tourists milling about, and the two of us soaking in the beauty.

And the absolute unpredictability of blessing.

One of the things that has drawn me into this journey from bench to bench has been to make my remaining time on this planet meaningful.  I suppose it's because when I try to look ahead, I'm afraid I see the dark clouds of old age.  It's easy to be glum about the future when loved ones who are older struggle with physical ailments as well as the loss of so many things -- mobility, friends, memory.

But moments like this tell me a different story: you don't know.  Two years ago, if you had told me I'd be requested to be the artist at a high-powered business conference in the financial district in Manhattan, I would have guffawed loudly.  (Who doesn't enjoy a hearty guffaw from time to time?)  But here I am.  Completely unforeseen. 

There are unforeseen difficulties ahead.  You betcha.  But there are also moments of sheer delight and joy waiting to be stumbled upon, coming around a corner to find.  Spectacular skies ready to be spread.  Bottled up blessings to be uncorked.  They may not all be of the wide-screen variety.  Perhaps they'll be more of the tiny wonders, like a child's laugh or the familiar warmth of my wife's hand wrapped in mine.

Who knows what the future will bring.  Certainly not me.

I'm starting to think that's not so bad after all.

Benched #8: not taken for granted

The bench in the shady front yard of my brother’s house in Matthews, NC, was hard.  So was my line of thinking.  The nearly twelve-hour drive the day before, in and out of storms, had left my brain slightly foggy.  It was probably not the best condition in which to sit and ponder two grand topics.

Freedom and time.  And how we take them both so much for granted.

It was, after all, the 4th of July, and in the distance, I could hear the crackle of strings of firecrackers being set off in the neighborhood.  Occasionally a deeper boom would sound.

I wondered: why fireworks?  Of all the things we could do to commemorate freedom, they seem an odd choice.  Are they meant to harken back to the red glare of rockets?  Are they to be benign bombs bursting in air?  If so, I think we miss the connection.  Maybe they’re just a dramatic woo-hoo moment to remind us of the preciousness of living in the land of the free.

Freedom is something I assume.  It’s background.  It’s so powerful, so grand, so abundant in our land, it’s like the great clouds of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies of the Midwest.  Untouchable.  Un-derailable.  Yet, as the plight of the pigeons should warn us, the cavalier loss of a few multiplied over and over can mean the loss of the whole.  Even grand things can disappear with steady carelessness.  Or with self-interested disregard.

But my thoughts today settled on a less ambitious, but no less difficult subject.  Time.  One thing visiting siblings can do is remind us of how precious a commodity time is. And how quickly it can be squandered.

As another home-ignited firework popped in the distance, I wished I had an inner pop that would sound every time something significant was happening. How great it would be to have something to snap my attention to focus on a moment that needed to be transformed into a memory.

What would life be like if we could catch all those precious proto-memories and incubate them?

I made an internal resolution to work on creating a way to stay, as a verse in Scripture reminded me, “alert and self-controlled.” 

Later that night, as we waited for fireworks to start above the skyline of Charlotte, I realized that such an opportunity had arrived.  Staying focused on the moment, I heard my brother share what he missed about his days playing principal trombone for the Charlotte Symphony, something I never thought to ask him about before. 

And the next day, as we picked blackberries together in a downpour on the top of Crowder's Mountain, laughing at how drenched we were and how delightful the unexpected bounty was – black gold at the beginning of the rainbow, we imagined – we both realized we were framing up a story to be retold in the years to come.

Precious memories. Born in moments not taken for granted.

Benched #7: falling water

It was hot.  Houston hot.

To get to the downtown Houston park I had chosen, I had to walk a block in the sweltering, midday sun, then cut through the Galleria Mall, past the incongruous ice skating rink.  (It’s just like Texans to thumb their noses at natural laws.)  Then walk back out into the sun.  The park was fairly non-descript – a sward of grass lined with trees on both sides.  On one end, the towering building shown above.  On the other, a brick façade, which partially hid a wall of falling water.

Unlike last week’s park in Manhattan, people didn’t linger here.  They came to see the waterfall and left.

But I noticed something interesting.

Slowed by the heat, tired souls (with burning soles) seemed to perk up once they came within earshot of the hiss of the falls.  People smiled. They fairly jogged up the steps. Kids ran around with suddenly-sprightly grandparents in laughing pursuit.  On one side, a couple in elegant clothes romantically posed for professional pictures. 

Nearby, another couple handed their young daughter their iPad to shoot their picture.  She giggled with delight.

What is it about water that rejuvenates us?  Perhaps the Fountain of Youth was just an ordinary fountain.  All water seems to perk us up.  But why?

Maybe it’s the fact that we’re made up mostly of the stuff.  Deep down inside us, something connects with water,whether it’s a pool, river, ocean or waterfall park.  It soothes us.  I was fascinated by the fact that here, no one actually got in the water.  Just getting near it was enough to refresh.

And that’s what I sat ruminating about.  To refresh people.  How can I spend my remaining years helping weary souls revive?  It might be fun to spray the daily walkers that pass my house, if the hose would reach that far.  Then again, maybe that’s just a tad too literal.  What does figurative refreshing look like?  What does it sound like?

As I walked back into the mall and ordered myself something cool to drink, I joked around a bit with the young guy behind the counter.  And it dawned on me.  Conversation.  As ubiquitous and as necessary as water. 

What does refreshing sound like?

A kind word.  A shared joke.  Appreciation.  A sensitive question that takes a chat past the brick façade.

Thoughtful words.  Like the spray of cool water on a scorching, summer day.

Benched #6: on the green

A grassy spot must feel so incredibly good.

I mean, if you pounded pavement all day long, what a treat it would be to have the springy give of a lawn underfoot. 

I’m not sure what I expected when I sat down on a bench along the edge of Bryant Park in Manhattan. Activity, I guess.  Not frenzied movement, but something closer to the undulating flow of people on the sidewalks that line it. 

There were spots of low-key sports – skilled ping pong players smoothly volleying, petanque players huddled over their latest throws –but they were hidden in the shadows under the trees.  Out in the open, people gathered in clusters all over the green.  Sitting.  Sleeping. Talking.  Hardly moving.  With the notable exception of one young woman who got up and, to her friends' amusement, began to twirl.

One could quickly spot the tourists.  They were the ones coming in, touching the open space just long enough to take a photo of the towering buildings around it, then ducking back out.  But it wasn’t just their restlessness in that moment that set them apart.  They were the only ones who looked up.

It struck me today that rural landscapes are horizontal; urban ones are vertical.  And yet, in both cases, it’s so easy to let the grandeur of the vista become passé.  We block it out.  I remember the first month after we moved to Lewisburg, we commented to a longtime resident as we drove along that the mountains around us were so incredibly beautiful.  She answered, slightly surprised, “Oh… yeah.  I guess you’re right.  I don’t notice them much any more.”

I can’t say that I know for a fact that New Yorkers on the lawn suddenly awakened again to the beauty of their surroundings.  But what a perfect setting for being still long enough to take it all in.

And what a perfect day.  Sunday.  Genesis tells us that on the last day of creation, God didn’t just see the individual parts as good.  He saw it all and it was very good.  That’s what a day of rest can do – give us a new perspective on what very good things we have been given.  I do believe that to enjoy life, we can’t just be tourists, pausing long enough just to take a snapshot so that on a future day we can enjoy the memory.  We need to slow down and find joy in the real version, while we have it. 

And just maybe, we'll let that joy force us to get up, feel the grass beneath our feet, and twirl a bit.

Let's just all be aware of the length of our skirts, shall we?

Benched #5: waiting

I’ll get this up front: I hate to wait.

I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.  I’m not the only one changing to the lane with less cars at a stop light.  Or the line with less people at the store.  As our technology micro-defines the meaning of instant, our fuses get trimmed as well.  It’s increasingly tough just to take a deep breath and let things evolve. 

This morning, I’m in a holding pattern with my work.  Projects which were brought to me as urgent by clients, have somehow gotten suspended in the netherworld of their distraction.  They should have sent me content to get started on, or approval to move forward.  Instead I fidget, waiting for the promised storm of work to break.

Other challenges loom like dark thunderheads on the horizon.

It’s a good time to sit on a bench.

I chose one outside of our local high school.  It’s in an odd location.  Since I started this series, I’ve begun to think about the placement of benches – more about that in a future post – but I couldn’t figure out why this one would be plunked down along the sidewalk leading from the parking lot.  Who would need to stop along the way?  A student who doesn’t want to break his streak of tardiness?  A teacher who just can’t make herself go towork one more day in June?  (I felt that collective nod, teacher friends.)

After taking a few pictures, I turned to sit and saw a woman approaching.  “Look,” she said, “It’s the Benched man!”

It was my friend, Stacy, who apparently is reading these posts.  I had to laugh and wonder aloud,“What are the chances someone who knows of the blog would see me?”  Stacy replied, “It is a small town, after all.”

So she sat with me. We talked about these essays, about benches in town, about our kids,about books, about teachers in the high school. We even did a little sleuthing concerning the placement of our bench.  Noticing that it was engraved with the name of the class that created it, Stacy figured it was put here as a project, with no deeper intent than to display their handiwork.

A half-hour flew by chatting with her.  And that reminded me of a fundamental truth about anticipating both the good and the bad: friends mitigate the wait.  Not profound, I know.  We all have anecdotes to prove the point.  Recently, I was stuck for three hours in the San Francisco airport after being bumped from a flight.  Having joked with the guy behind me in line, I found that I had a good-natured fellow bumpee to kill the time with.   Who knew that delays could be fun?

The trick is finding friends willing to join in the waiting. 

Who don’t mind slowing down long enough to sit for a spell with a benched man.

Benched #4: unexpected

There’s a problem with unexpected pleasures.

They’re too unpredictable.

As my daughter and I benched ourselves in a local park to eat a picnic lunch, we immediately noticed a fascinating visual: two teenage girls, in long Mennonite dresses, playing basketball with a young boy.  I snapped a number of photos from our distant vantage point, thinking to use them in this entry when something even more surprising happened.  Finishing up, one of the girls hopped onto a skateboard and whirred past us.  I only managed to capture her image as she receded down a winding sidewalk, her dress flapping around her legs.

The surprise made me smile.

Unexpected pleasures are pleasurable for the very reason that they are unexpected.  In the gray world of the predictable, surprises are a splash of color.  In a grid pattern schedule, they are the curly-cues.  If only we could anticipate where they’d appear.

I’ve often wondered, while watching a nature video, how long the filmmaker had to hunker down in a blind to get nature to cooperate.  I know from my forays into the mildly wild woods of Pennsylvania that one has to have exceptional luck or timing in order to see anything unusual. 

Unless one hunkers down. There’s no substitution for being present.  In the moment, when the moment comes.

And that’s the lesson I take away from today’s bench.  If I want those curly-cue instances in my life, I have to make time for them.  I can’t force surprises.  But I can park myself where I can notice them as they flit by.

Or skate past. 

There were other small delights.  The dad who let his little boy tool around in the skateboard park on his Big Wheel. The couple that introduced their toddler to ducks.  Best of all was Grace, hair perfectly coiffed for the evening’s ballet recital, sharing ideas for how she plans to creatively use the summer.  I suppose she would have told me those in the normal flow of life. But here, sitting together in the speckled shade on a pleasant June day,we had just the right environment for sharing.

And for catching unexpected pleasures.

Benched #3: the speed of boats

Public benches were made to be relational.  Sure, they usually attract solo sitters, but benches have a generosity of space, as if they’re encouraging you to find a friend to sit for a while.

Which is why I was relaxing on a bench in Havre de Grace,Maryland, with my good friend, Bill Lawson. We had come to visit for the weekend, and while the women wandered, Bill and I chose a bench in the shade with an unimpeded view of the Chesapeake Bay.  I went through my usual drill,trying to get grounded in that space in that moment.  The day was glorious, with only a single line of clouds over the far shore.  A steady breeze tempered the scorching heat and churned up the water into small, choppy waves.  It also brought out the sailboats.  The watery expanse was dotted with slow-moving white triangles.

Then there were the powerboats.  Their roar continually broke into the bucolic scene.

“Sometimes they get so loud, we can hear them back at the house,” said Bill, who lives a couple of miles from the harbor.  “Too much testosterone.  Like suped-up pickup trucks.”

We watched the motorboats plowing through the water, some like sleek, black arrows, others bulkier and slower.  Bill pointed to one of the latter.  “See that? I looked that one over at the dock.  It’s from the 70’s but hasn’t been restored.  The seats and everything are all torn up.  But seeing it was like a time machine – it took me back to when I was a teenager and dreamed of having a boat like that.”

I knew the draw of a fast boat.  As a teen, I’d sit in the back of my uncle’s speedboat on a lake in Ontario as he’d open up the throttle on the Evinrude.  There was such a rush – not only of wind in my hair (yes, those were the good old days), but of adrenaline as the boat skimmed along, rhythmically slapping the water.  It’s funny that rush can mean both an external movement and an internal reaction.

Contrast that to sailing. I’ve never sailed, but it’s easy to see the difference.  Powerboats create their own environment of sound, speed, wind, and spray.  Sailboats just use the environment they’re given. I watched the two kinds of crafts coming toward each other. That contrast of speed struck me as a pointed picture of what I’m trying to do: slow down and take what the environment gives me.  We live in the rush of life.  We live for the rush of life.  We’re driven, focused, intentional.  And for good reason: so much of life demands being on task.  But what suffers from living at a speed-boat pace?


There is no full-throttle for building relationships.  There’s a certain languorous pace to it. It’s why we say we spend time getting to know someone.  It costs us.  In time. And patience.  And attention.  All are rewarded, in the best friendships.  But the outlay comes first.  We have to make ourselves slow down.

As if to illustrate the point, an old man, walking stiffly with a cane, made his way down the long jetty to sit and watch the boats.  The fact is that most of us will be forced to slow down, eventually.  It’d be wise to start now, while we’re able to really enjoy our surroundings.  And talk to the person on the bench with us.

Bill never bought that powerboat he dreamed of.  He does own a canoe, though – the same canoe that he kindly loaded in the back of his nonsuped pickup and put into the bay so that my daughter and I could have a wonderfully slow paddle around a nearby island, where we watched the birds.

And talked.

Benched #2: on the team

This wasn’t my first choice of a bench today.  A Massachusetts state park I had planned to visit had a fee attached, so I let my GPS give me Plan B – a local park about which I knew nothing.

Which isn’t a bad thing. I find it ironic that in my effort to be more “in the moment”, I have pursued this goal with my usual analytical planning, quickly transforming light whimsy into heavy intent.  The state park had promised a lakeside view.  Lincoln Park promised nothing.  It was good to be rerouted.

What did I find?  A small, neighborhood park, just big enough for a baseball field, a couple of skateboard ramps and a neglected basketball court.  The local high school baseball team was warming up for what was, the coach later said in his address to them, the last game of their season.  I sat down on the line of benches facing the field, with my notebook and a conspicuously large camera, wondering if one of the more talented players might wonder if I was a college scout.  Or the local reporter.  I tried to scribble with thoughtful intensity, to look the part.

I watched them warm up, just one errant throw away from quaint Victorian houses, which lined the park on four sides.  I took in the scene with the pastel homes and the verdant grass, listening to the pop of baseballs hitting gloves and the whir of skateboard wheels behind me.

And I began to think about teams.  Not so much about organized sports – outside of a few church league softball seasons and my dozen years of coaching AYSO soccer, I have limited experience – but about the joy of working on a team of people.  Freelancing can be a lonely road.  The price for following your own vision is precisely that.  It’s your vision.  But the last few years, I’ve entered the world of purposeful teams – filled with skillful people intent on accomplishing very specific goals.

I found out what I had been missing all these years.  Camaraderie. Focus.  The sense that one can add a very significant element to the group. The elation of a job accomplished. Most of all, the appreciation of both the whole and the individual parts.  Whatever is ahead for me, I know that I want it to be a team effort.

“Batter up!”  It was my cue to leave.  They had a game to play and I had buzzing cell phone to deal with. 

Not surprisingly, collaboration was calling.

Benched #1: river view

There is a river alongside our town.  I say that because I am sitting on a park bench with a view of that river.  I say, view, though in fact, the scrub trees right in front of me have obscured most of that panorama.  The river appears before me in isolated patches, like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on a green tabletop.  But despite that, and despite the unnatural briskness of this late May day, I have chosen this bench to start my yearlong search for an inner quietude, a deeper connection to the moment, to open my eyes to the world around me.  And to still the inner yammering.
I’ll explain more as I go along, but here’s my intent: to choose a bench once a week and spend at least thirty minutes on it.  Some people set lofty goals for a series of challenges — climbing all the peaks of a mountain range, running in so many marathons, cooking through Julia Child’s masterwork.  Me?  I want to sit down.  In a whole bunch of places.

How’s that for challenging?

But in a way, it is a great challenge, not only for me, but for most of us.  We take great pride in our busyness, bragging in the guise of complaining about how little time we have.  How early we have to wake.  How late we’re forced to stay up.  It’s a modern asceticism.  We live in an odd age that give us more leisure time than ever before and such unsatisfied lives.  For me, I’ve found a new surplus of time — now that my career has stabilized and kids are, for the most part, grown.  In this new stage of life, I am struggling to find something to fill those spare ours that counts, which is not how I’d describe repeatedly beating Norm at Scrabble on my kindle.  But as I’ve contemplated what to do, I’ve resisted the idea to plunge into some new activity.  I need to tap into a bigger purpose.

There is a bigger Purpose — a plan that I know quite well.  But it’s too much “out there” and too little “in here.”  In a way, it’s like the river.  Living in a river town, we are all aware of its proximity, but rarely do we slow down enough to see it.  It’s like the friends I used to have who said, “We’re just glad to know you’re out there.”  Not enough to get together, mind you.  Just enough to grow themselves some warm fuzzies.
Coming back to my surroundings, I find a telling irony that I’m sitting here, legs outstretched, back against the hard wooden slats, having made the trek to actually watch the river roll by — and I can hardly see it.  There are too many things in the way.

And that is precisely why I’m going to start sitting on benches.

I can’t see the river for the trees.