Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Benched #21: fluttering wings

In any given city square on a sunny Sunday, there are countless minor stories being acted out. San Francisco’s Union Park was no exception.  It was a balmy afternoon when I found my bench and watched the personal vignettes unfold.

Two stood out.

A pretty, blonde woman in her twenties stood ramrod stiff as a cadre of young Asian men made a show of photographing her.  The scene was hard to miss.  She nearly glowed in the sunshine, set off by the black outfits of her companions. Plus, the one photographing – filming? – repeatedly circled her with the camera as she stood, expressionless.  She seemed uncomfortable with the attention they were giving her.

In another direction were two small children.  As their parents stood by, they took turns chasing pigeons – a sport of generations of kids.  (If only it was a formal sport -- how fun would that be to watch?)  These siblings were unaware of the adults around who smiled as they passed, remembering, perhaps, their own kids’ pigeon-hassling. For these two, there was only the joy of the chase.

The backdrop to these two scenes?  An open-air art show.  Which got me thinking.

My art has always had a tension between two forces.  There’s the gravity of art: the weight of making something important or beautiful or invested with meaning.  And in the other corner, wearing the footie pajamas, is whimsy. For me, one is awkwardly self-conscious. The other, lightweight.  I want to create something with depth, but find the seeking joyless, like the gaze of the young woman.  But the pursuit of significant art through whimsy has been as fruitful as trying to catch a pigeon.

For years, the mitigating factor was time.  Facing me on the building across the street was this sculpture, which made me smile. How I know the weight of creating under pressure of deadlines!  That pressure has been removed, for the most part, thank God.

So, where am I left?  Still not sure.

At the end of my bench-sitting, I got up and wandered over to the art show.  The first image I came to was this painting.  I can’t say this represents the right balance for me, but there’s no denying there is a playfulness at the heart of this artist’s work.

I’ll keep exploring. You know, maybe the point, after all, is not to catch the pigeon.  It’s just the delight of making one take flight.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Benched #20: a bit foggy

A cemetery alongside of a college campus is a striking contrast.  I chose a bench between the two mostly because the early fog demanded a moody photo – a film noir expectation. Morning on the moor. But after I got a few shots, and as an occasional bleary-eyed college student passed by, the contrast began to loom in my thoughts.

Looking back, looking forward.  On one side, the vitality of youth.  On the other, a somber reminder that our days are finite.

This past weekend, I scribed at a college event.  (My new profile pic is from one of those sessions.) Being with students was invigorating. Their enthusiasm was infectious.  There was a potency of conviction that was undiluted by life’s contrariness, a sense of purpose that wasn’t eroded by disillusionment.  They could be serious.  They could be silly.  They could be seriously silly.

As I sat on the bench, the chill in the air was a tactile link to my own college days, which seem to be coupled in my memory to brisk walks amidst falling leaves.  I remember that time fondly. During those years, I formed a philosophical underpinning for my life that has carried me through the ensuing decades.  I’ve built my life upon it.

But now, I find myself pushed to re-examine that foundation. 

Maybe it’s that erosion thing.  Perhaps it’s the reminders of mortality, regularly chiming the hours like the clock tower on campus.  We’re watching Alison’s mother approaching her final days – it’s hard not to wonder about one’s own end, and attempt to add up the total of one’s efforts.

So, I’m a bit foggy.  I’m longing for the vitality of youth tempered, but not worn down by, a seasoned perspective.  Aged enthusiasm: oxymoronic?

A couple of days ago, I read this from C. S. Lewis: “Do the present duty—bear the present pain—enjoy the present pleasure—and leave emotions and ‘experiences’ to look after themselves.”  Well said, old man.  I intend to strive to live more in the moment, investing energy into whatever task I’m facing.

Though… maybe I should make an effort to add some college students into my life.  A little mid-morning sunshine is a great way to burn off the fog.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Benched #19: threads

Times Square got me thinking about threads.

It was warm and the tourists were crowded onto the bleachers that took in the famous view.  I found aspot to sit.  The streets around me were so filled with life they demanded a photo, but I knew whatever I took wouldn’t do it justice.  But that’s true of all of the cities I’ve been in – whether New York, London, Cairo, Beijing, or Delhi.  Hustle and bustle translate into photographic clutter.

There is, though, something unique about Times Square. Flowing all around me were languages I didn’t know – call the spot the Bleachers of Babel.  Hardly a word of English could be heard.

Think of the world as a globe wrapped in threads, each thread representing the unraveling travel of a tourist.  Not only would many of them transect New York, nearly all of those would pass through this little conjuncture.  And honestly, there’s not much to see in Times Square.  It’s why people seem to congregate on those benches -- from all over the world to sit with me.  How sweet of them.

I enjoyed the faces. Like this striking, leprachaunish beard. 

And this man I swore looked French (his speech proved otherwise.) 

And best of all, a “shady” family. 

I wondered about their stories.  Perhaps it’s the untapped novelist in me, butI find myself frequently passing people in cities or airports and looking for clues to their narratives.

Surrounded on the bleachers by so many untold stories, I was drawn to consider the global threads that have converged in my life.  Alison and I have always shared a tenderness toward international people.  Many have come through our house.  Some have stayed for weeks.  It’s delightful to have the time to explore some of those hidden narratives.

One couple in front of me got my attention.  They were Asian, perhaps in their seventies, and they sat with an uncanny patience, hardly talking, but nestling close to each other in an obvious comfort and tenderness.  They had taken their journey together.  This past summer, Alison and I had a few of those joint adventures.  Because of timing,they’re rare.

But it might be time to think once again about the international people who come through our town. Time to have our world opened up a bit by hearing a narrative unlike our own.

And find those common threads that tie us all together.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Benched #18: it looks so small from the outside

It’s not every week I get to view my bench location from above.  But if I had taken the time on a previous trip to San Jose (please don’t start singing the song), I would have seen this park out of my hotel window.  But, before I started this pursuit, I didn’t look out of hotel windows much.

That’s changing. I’m learning to slow down.  Benching myself has been a lesson in observing, in how to sit quietly and actually inhabit the space in which I find myself.  It has begun to fundamentally alter me.  I notice more.  I talk less. I’m a bit quicker to listen.

But my benched state is nothing compared to Paula’s.

In a park with a surplus of homeless people, I chose a bench near the fountains, since it seemed to be a point of convergence for people,and because an elderly woman sat on the one end – someone I might be able to talk to. 

We did end up chatting. It took some effort.  She was friendly, but answered questions with simple, short answers.  She liked to sit and watch the people.  Her favorite passersby were moms with strollers – they reminded her of her six kids, now all grown.  No, she didn’t know if the old guy picking off flower heads was the gardener.  But she might have seen him before.

Paula seemed to be in a benched zone far beyond me.  After fifteen minutes, I’m generally restless.  It’s work to be still.  For her, stillness seems like a way of life.

Years ago, I read that there are some people who enter a room as if to say, “Well, here I am!” There are others who enter with more of “Ah, there you are!”  Those of us who are storytellers recognize ourselves in the former, and sometimes long to have more of the empathy of the latter.  I don’t think I ever want to lose the ability to spin a tale, or tell a joke well, or write a meaningful essay – how am I doing, by the way? – but I’m seeing the value in seeing.  Open eyes precede an open heart.

Sitting next to Paula, I saw things a bit from her perspective.  Things that made me smile.  The cowboy ice cream man.  The kids in the fountain.  Best of all, Mr. Gardener in the fountain.

It’s a funny thing.  Paula’s world seems so small.  Her apartment is across the street from the park. I would bet she picks this same bench each time.  But inside that world there is a panorama of delicate details, a delicious buffet of slices of life.

Seems pretty big when you get inside it.