Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Benched Week 41: carrying on

Forty one posts into my bench obsession, I have not picked one in an airport.  Until now. 

Seems like the right time. I’m in Atlanta, passing through an airport on steroids.  This trip starts a dizzying string of corporate events in the coming month.  A visual of roller bags seems appropriate. 

Even if the bench itself was uninviting.

Watching people collect their luggage at the carousel makes me glad that I’ve learned how to pack expertly.  Of course, I had to learn the hard way – four times in two years, airlines lost my checked bag.

Here is my carry on. Inside this small suitcase are 80 markers, 13 bottles of marker refill fluid, 16 wax blocks, four days of clothes, toiletries, a pair of shoes and a large camera.  Unfortunately, there is also one ruined shirt from a leak of orange marker fluid.  One of the risks of packing tightly, I guess.

The lesson I’ve learned is: life is easier when traveling lightly.

That’s a lesson Alison and I are applying to our house. We are in the midst of lightening the load of flotsam and jetsam that the years have washed into our home. (Note the deft deflection of blame: time’s fault.)  Closets are being ruthlessly raked.  Bookshelves are thinned.  We’ve turned a cold, realistic eye even toward the catch-all drawers and the baking pan cabinet.  Watch out, dish-towels – we’re coming for you!

It feels good to get trimmer.

But today, when I started going through folders from my career, it got trickier.  Hidden among the easily trashed papers is art that I don’t know what to do with.  Line drawings, sketches, undeveloped ideas – like these little pigs I drew for an animation I once created for my site.

Do I keep things like this, chuck them, give them away?  Like a favorite book, old drawings like this remain because of the way they wrap a memory around themselves like a comforter.  Not enough, mind you, to make me want to revisit them.  But just enough to keep them cluttering up my life.

There is a place for keeping something for the pleasure it brings.  But there’s pleasure in letting go of stuff. 

And wisdom in giving oneself a smaller suitcase in life.

Not to mention putting liquids in zip-lock bags.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Benched Week 40: the far view

My son lives in Pittsburgh. Yesterday, on a sunny, spring day, we came to visit, to spend Easter with him – and to get him to take us up The Incline.

On previous trips, he had dismissed the landmark as too touristy.  It’s just two cable cars in which people can ride up and down a steep hill, overlooking the city.  But it’s a popular destination.  Alison prevailed, as moms often can, and he guided us there, where we met his girlfriend and rode up.

The view from the top was spectacular, taking in the whole of the city.  I could see why it was a popular place to visit.  Along the walkway at the top, hundreds of people strolled, stopping to snap themselves with Pittsburgh in the background.  The reflecting sun on the glass high-rises made it seem like the city was smiling for each click.

I found what I consider to be one of the least impressive benches in my journeys and we all sat. They chatted.  I did my usual listening and jotting of notes.  After a while, I asked Nathan and Christina what they best about living here.  They said that they liked the small-town feeling combined with the big city amenities.

This was something I had noticed.  Pittsburgh is broken up by the three rivers and frequent bridges into a collection of neighborhoods.  It’s a city defined by its distinctive pieces.  I find the whole geography of the place confusing, but I recognize its appeal.

Christina then said, “I hadn’t realized how beautiful a city it is until I flew back into it recently and saw all of it at once.”

That’s a statement that could be true for much of our lives.  We live in a series of little parts – segments of time, repeating duties, circles of friends – which we cobble together into another passing year. Those individual pieces may be enjoyable (or quite challenging) but we live them out with little thought to the whole. We sew each piece of fabric together and hardly wonder how crazy the quilt might be.  Sometimes, we need a view from above.

And taking a step back, that’s the real meaning of Easter. We get a far view on life. What we thought was the whole story turns out to be just a simple phrase – a mere sentence part – in a never ending epic that promises to grow richer and more fulfilling as it unfolds. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Just before we got up from the bench to ride the cable car down, a couple passed by.  He was wearing sunglasses and carrying a white cane – the one used by the visually impaired.  I caught only a sentence of their dialogue.  Referencing the apartment buildings behind us that overlooked the city, he said, “If I could live over here, I’d want to be in one of those!”

Exactly.  Even through a glass darkly, the far view is worth having.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Benched Week 39: marking the mundane

First impressions, a recent study pointed out, are often more accurate than we give them credit for. But they’re incomplete.  A person, or for that matter, a place, is not so easily defined.

Which is why I was glad to come back to Birmingham.

You may remember my first trip, taking me to “Fakerburg Castle,” which had about as much local flavor as a suburban mall.  But this time, I stayed downtown.  I hadn’t even known there was a downtown.

It took me until the end of my stay to grab time for searching out a bench.  I wandered over to the art museum, outside of which was a lovely interplay of fountains and murals.  Inside, the room that invited me the most to sit was full of African pottery – a perfect place to consider repeat visits.

To truly understand something, repetition is helpful, perhaps necessary.  For instance, as this little etching reminded me, Rembrandt spent his whole life revisiting self-portraits.

The investment of time and effort to come at a new idea from a variety of angles pays big dividends.  You can’t wrap your mind around something until you’ve seen it from every side.

But what happens once you’ve seen it enough to truly know it, when it becomes so regular, it is reduced to the level of mundane.

That’s where pots instructed me. 

What’s more mundane that gathering and storing water?  (Or, according to the exhibit notes, story beer, which was what this X-marks-the-spot vessel was for.  I thought it was a Spy vs. Spy armament.)  And yet, at some point in the making of pots, utility broadened to include ornamentation.  For pots, good construction was necessary.  Decoration was not.  But someone decided to add creative touches, turning an everyday item into something expressive.

Ornamentation is, come to think of it, is my current answer to the question of my expression of art.  At least for the moment.  I decorate the side of a letter or the front of a thank-you card.  I use these photos to visually elaborate on my written points.  Ornamentation.  Illustration.  Adding a little extra to the ordinary. Maybe someday, I’ll put it all together to make art that is truly extraordinary. But for now, I’m content putting my mark on such mundane pots.

But that won’t keep me from coming back and looking at this question again.

There are plenty more angles I haven’t seen.