Sunday, December 29, 2013

Benched Week 31: a snowy invitation

There’s nothing like this time of year for a fresh start.

I began my usual year-end review a few days ago, in which I consider the good and the bad that has happened in the family’s life in the past twelve months.  That mixture was swirling in my mind like stirred hot cocoa as I drove back from State College, having dropped off a son at the Megabus.  As I passed a favorite park of ours, I decided to turn in and find a bench.

It’s ironic that we’ve never visited a park with such a name in the wintertime.  We call it by its nickname, Halfway Dam, and love to grill here in the summer, when the beach is crowded with people and the water is just a shade less frigid.  Today, I found it had quite a different personality – hushed as if hibernating or holding its breath until spring. 

There were a few people who had come to enjoy the cold,though.  Young hockey players warmed up.

And a family had a half-hearted snowball fight.

It’s good to see a familiar landscape in a different light.  It’s not unlike my daughter’s room this morning, after she spent yesterday rearranging the furniture – all the same elements viewed from a different angle.  I think that’s why I do my year-end review.  Distance gives a new perspective on personal scenery.

But it’s not just about looking back.  It’s just as much about looking forward.  And as I sat on my bench and gazed across the beautiful, unmarred snow that covered the icy lake, it struck me how a new year is like a fresh layer of snow over familiar ground.  Sure, much of this ground has been trekked before, but there’s a pleasure in setting out, making a mark –feeling like one is on a journey of discovery.

The metaphor becomes even more powerful to me when I change the time frame: not just each year, but each day is a fresh field of snow. Every day brings an invitation to make a mark, to chart a course.  Or to switch metaphors just a bit – every day is like a blank canvas, just waiting for a new work of art.  (Or in one case when Grace was little, the snow was both.)

So, I think I’m ready to make my mark on today.  Whether it be something whimsical, or just a simple walk on a renewed landscape.

Fresh snow -- a fresh day -- awaits!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Benched Week 30: guarded moments

My second trip to Manhattan in two weeks brought me to an inevitable spot.  Rockefeller Center and its bejeweled tree had drawn crowds even in the late afternoon, when the lights were not yet piercing and the skaters weren’t yet pirouetting below. I joined the throng.

I had hoped for a bench, and I was happily surprised one lining each side of the garden that approaches the view.  With people swirling around me, I sat and watched.

With the fast turnover of the crowd, it didn’t take long to pick out the one person who didn’t move on. And it wasn’t this rather grim-faced guy, who stood for some time alone, unmoving against the wall.  Even he eventually melded back into the crowd.

The one constant was a young guard who had been given the duty of telling people to stop standing on the benches.  Or climbing into the garden. 

Most often, they were after a clearer, more dramatic shot.  But he commanded –politely – that they get down.  Or get out of the plants. And scarcely a minute went by without him approaching someone. 

I decided I had to talk to him.

“Tough job,” I said when I sidled up.  He nodded. I added,  “Anyone ever get angry?”

 “Nah,” he answered.  “They’re tourists.  They listen. Thing is, they don’t realize those benches are slick.  Don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Little life lesson there.  Rules aren’t usually just to curtail fun.  They mean to protect – not only delicate displays from trampling tourists, but trampling tourists from themselves.

I’ve been feeling a bit lately like challenges in life are like security guards just putting a damper on the fun.  Standing in the way of a great shot, as it were.

But according to a dear friend I talked with as I drove today, challenges can be a way to get our attention – to stop and take stock, to pay attention to what we’re doing.  To think about the decisions we’re making. And the ones that we might need to make.

There might just be a new angle, a new approach, a new road to take.  

Now only if I could find a herald to announce which direction that would be.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Benched Week 29: long walk in Longwood

Who knew that Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, famous for its indoor and outdoor flora, would have a plethora of delightful benches?  I passed many as Alison, Grace and I wandered the grounds, settling on this grand stone one as my official bench of the week.

But we weren’t there for the benches.  We were trying to get into a holiday mood.

I have a like/dislike relationship with Christmas traditions.  Over the years, we’ve committed to less and less of the usual rituals, dropping by the wayside baking cookies, Christmas cards, and regularly submitting to holiday music.  I’m afraid that if Alison didn’t drive the decorating, I’d cut a sprig of holly from the neighbor’s tree and call it a day.

In fact, I’m finding myself increasingly allergic to rituals of all kinds.  For a theme-and-variation guy, traditions feel like the cage I’m left to pace in.  Same songs. Same movies.  Same sappy sentiments.

Can we say, “Bah, humbug, children?”

But Longwood taught me something.  This time of year has a tremendous potential for infusing beauty into one’s life, if even just for a month.  (Hear that, Madison Avenue?  One month.)  As I walked and looked at the displays – with both an eye and a camera lens – I felt my senses filling up with color and texture and design.

Then, as I was just cropping photos, it hit me: traditions are a frame for the beauty.  They give us cause to decorate and the pause to appreciate. Just like a frame hones in our vision to just the key elements the artist or photographer wants us to see, holiday traditions frame up those simple joys, those fundamental truths that usually get swept up in the everyday.  They put a shine and a sparkle on them.

So, in the coming days, I’m going to share with you my framing of the beauty that I saw – not so much the outdoor splendor of lit trees, floating on water.

Or the lavish color of the fountain show.

But the small, touches of design and color, made (hopefully) more delightful because of the framing. May they add a few moments of beauty to your holiday season.