Sunday, February 23, 2014

Benched Week 35: monumental decisions

If anyone lived larger than life, it was Theodore Roosevelt.  And here he was, looming over me on an island named after him, tucked in between Washington, D.C. and Arlington.  I had arrived in late afternoon, hastening over the footbridge to try to get a look around while the light lasted.

It’s a popular walking spot, especially on a faux spring day.

There were plenty of benches by T.R.  I chose one and pondered his pose.  It seemed a bit awkward in my eyes.  His brows were set just short of a frown.  His eyes were open slightly more than a squint. 

His hand was raised, not quite clenched. 

I imagined him thundering, “Who in blazes took my glasses!?”

That led me to wonder what pose I’d want to represent my life.  I would hope it wouldn’t be too true to life.  A bronze Bruce hunched over a laptop would make a rather unmemorable memorial.  Ditto for me sitting on a bench.

It’s easier to imagine signature stances for others.  My good friend, Scott, the nature-writer: binoculars raised, standing dramatically on a rock.  My wife, Alison: paused, gesturing in mid-story, surrounded by our smiling kids. My son, Nathan: dressed like Batman.

After a while, I rose and wandered the island.  Clumping along the boardwalk over the wetter areas, I had another question bubble up: can we alter that characteristic pose, even late in life?  Can we get a makeover, like D.C. did, leaving behind its century-old reputation as a fetid swamp?

I’m in a bit of a makeover right now, having initiated a few Do-It-(On)-Yourself projects in the new year. I’m not ready to be set in stone quite yet.

The sun was quickly setting and I knew the park gate closed at dusk, so I headed back to the walk bridge, stopping as I crossed it for shots of the city lights glimmering on the river.

What could be my pose?

Let it be something that captures my desire to share my gifts with the world around me.

You know, one arm reaching skyward and the other outstretched works just fine.

With or without the glasses.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Benched Week 34: in the gloaming

I was looking forward to finding my first bench in Birmingham, Alabama, until I discovered that I was not going to be anywhere near the city center.  Instead, I’d be staying my entire time in a golf resort.

I know.  Tragic.  I’m sensing a palpable lack of empathy.

The resort is impressive, but in a Disneyesque way.  The main building has hints of a Scottish castle.  The grounds are manicured.  It's all so... perfect.

Looking in vain for a bench, I wandered out onto the deserted golf course, discovering a stone building and waterwheel that had a strong feeling of my native Pennsylvania. But as pretty as they are, they’re fake. Carefully constructed to be something they’re not.

I’ve been thinking about narratives a lot lately.  They used to be my life, as I presented to school kids the essence of stories.  Recently, one of the facilitators I work with asked me to help him think through how to teach storytelling to corporate execs.  It felt odd to have those two worlds collide.

But then again, I’ve never really gotten away from stories.

I ferret them out wherever I go – from my colleagues at these events.  From cab drivers.  Fellow plane passengers.  Hotel workers.  Friends I occasionally stop by to visit.

That’s what disappoints me about these resorts.  They’re so sanitized.  Removed from the real world.  I can’t get a sense of a place unless I can walk through the midst of people working and walking and talking and living life.  I had a strong urge to ask the cabdriver to stop and let me out at the little Baptist church we passed before entering the complex.  But there’s not time for that.

Above me, the sun began to set, the first genuine thing I had seen here since I started wandering.

Then the bagpipes started.

I rolled my eyes.  How corny – to pipe bagpipe music over the speakers.  I started back toward the one bench that I had seen to wait it out.

And to my surprise, there was a real person generating the caterwauling.  I sat and listened. After he played, I talked with him for a while. Jim is retired, having grown up in Grove City, PA, and learning the pipes in Pittsburgh, he keeps busy with gigs – this being one of them.  Every night, in the gloaming.

Even at Fakerburg Castle, there are stories to be found.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Benched Week 33: the wisdom of rocks

I had asked my friend, Linda, to find me a bench when I took an extra day this week in Denver to visit her and her family.

She did more than that. She took me to Red Rocks, where a famous amphitheater is dramatically nestled into the foothills of the Rockies.  It had benches in bunches. 

We climbed to the top and chose a dry row, sat and talked. More athletically minded people around us used the stadium for workouts, while a team of shovelers methodically tossed snow to lower levels.  I was thankful that my original concept for this series hadn’t been “Steps.”

After a bit, we went for a walk among the boulder and scrub brushes, dappled with white.
I was struck by the dramatic simplicity of the surroundings.  With its strong shapes and lines and varying textures, it’s a designer’s delight. 

But it’s also an austere landscape, brought home to me by the small herd of mule deer scraping for bits of grass in among the roots of bare bushes.  “Having lived in Pennsylvania where everything grows, this can look like scrubby barrenness,” Linda said.  “But I see the beauty in it now.”

That led our conversation into a more philosophical vein. Linda told me about how a tour guide in the Middle East once explained to her about how the desert is far from the lifeless world it seems at first glance. It can indeed sustain a person, if one knows what to look for.  She likened challenging times in life to such a desert – daunting at first, but potentially full of wisdom to be learned, if one could learn to notice.

We debated this analogy for some time.  Are those desert lessons to be taken with you as you pass through to greener fields? Or are they instructions on how to stay and survive?

To put it another way, when is restlessness a useful catalyst and when is it simply a lack of contentedness?  Thomas Edison once said that restlessness is the starting point for progress.  My impetus for this blog has been and continues to be an internal itching for something more significant to do with the time that’s left to me.  What is that something?  The answer may involve large-scale changes.  But, then, it may be to live more acceptingly.

I’m sure there’s not one answer to that question.  Our conversation certainly didn’t provide any clear Aha! moments.  But it did remind me of a most valuable lesson.

A good friend can make even a bare landscape more welcoming.