Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Benched Week 45: what comes and goes

My year of benched sitting is ending.

Last week, while relaxing in Piedmont Park in downtown Atlanta, I had time to ponder what I’ve learned since I started writing about benches one year ago.  And though it can’t cover all the nuances of what I’ve been taught, my Piedmont outing brought home two key lessons.

As I made my way through the park and around the lake where romance blossomed,

and the skyline was dramatically framed,

I was hoping to find an empty swing that were scattered about in the shade.

Ultimately I settled on a lakeside bench to take in the water and the magnificent magnolias nearby.

As I watched, into my view a family of geese swam, creating a lovely image.  They reminded me of the first great lesson of bench-sitting: if you wait, an interesting moment will find you.  I have a tendency to overthink things, wanting to plan out what will happen at any given place.  It’s been good for me to allow room for the unexpected. 

Then, as I got up to leave, I made the decision to go back and talk more with Fabian.  I had passed the young stranger on the way in, stopping briefly when I noticed his sketchbook.  I had asked him about his art and got him to show me his favorite drawing.  My compliment about his work, he said, made his day.

When I returned to him, I sat down.  I took more time.  I asked if I could draw him something, then sketched out a portrait of him – to his great amusement – with space for him to add his own details.

And this is the second great lesson I’ve learned: sometimes you have to go find the interesting moment. Though it may seem contradictory, it actually is a nuance of the first truth.  That moment that comes along often requires an action – an outside-the-comfort-zone response.  It might be looking foolish while dramatically photographing a rather ordinary family of geese.  Or it might be taking the time to engage with a stranger.

The key is to put yourself in a place long enough for Opportunity to sidle up, whisper and wink.  I think he much prefers that to knocking.

And so, the year is up.  Am I done?   Is this it for my posts?

That depends, a fair bit, on you.  If you have been reading these posts and enjoying them – I’ll keep going. My larger questions about my art remain unanswered, and there are multitudes of benches left for me to find.  But I’ll only continue if there’s a purpose beyond a personal musing.

What do you think?  I'd like your perspective.

While you ponder, I think I’ll sit down over here and wait.  Something interesting is bound to happen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Benched Week 44: stories attached

“Yo!  I see the end!  That Stonewall thing – the statue!  We’re almost there!”

The call came from the advance scout of a troop of weary high schoolers, hiking toward my shady bench in the Manassas National Battlefield, where I had parked myself on a gloriously sunny day, filling time before tomorrow’s flight.  The statue in reference was a comically over-muscled tribute to the great Confederate general – call him Stonewall Jacked-Some – which stood outside the visitors’ center. 

The students were clearly not caught up in the history of the place.  I could understand.  Though I’m not a Civil War buff, I love historic sites because they set aside precious ground, putting up a defiant hand against the encroaching development.  But it’s hard to capture meaning in a place. 

As the students gathered for a photograph, looking to me like a herd of cows crowding together in the shade, I moved on to another bench. 

Here, the solitude of the spot was accented by the lone conifer and the foundation of a house that had survived both battles, but not the ensuing years.  I thought some more about the odd, prevailing peacefulness in a place hallowed by brutal violence.  For the picnicking onlookers that fateful day in 1861, their view of the battle was obscured by smoke.  Ours is veiled by time -- and by the tranquility of our present, distant day. The essence, the power of what happened here is gone, except, maybe, for the most imaginative among us.  Or most historically obsessive.

How do we transfer meaning in places or objects that we hold dear? This is frequently on my mind of late, as we purge the house of unnecessary stuff.  We all hold on to things that only have value because of the memories we attach to them.  Throwing them away is like letting go of pieces of the past.  How much better it would be to be able to pass them on – with the memory intact.

To that end, I have an idea to take the art that I still find good enough to save and write on the back of each a bit of its story – why it was created, what it meant to me, how I feel about it now.  Maybe I’ll let that be the second of the two criteria for saving something: 1) it needs to be competently made; and 2) it needs to tell a story worth sharing.

Of the two, the first is the more important.  There is a touch of the eternal in beauty.  These fields, speckled with buttercups and beardtongue, have not lost their power to soothe.  But to move us -- to awaken our awe, and pity, and gratitude – that takes a story.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Benched Week 43: submerged

Do you know those weeks when you get an unflattering look at yourself through other people’s eyes?  I just had one of those.  It’s not fun, seeing the mud revealed at low tide. Necessary, I suppose.  But not fun.
My search for a bench this week brought this into clearer focus for me.

When I found that I’d be in New Rochelle, NY, I did my usual Google search for a nearby park.  Finding Five Islands Park within walking distance, I then took a virtual stroll down the lane leading to it with “street view.”  The neighborhood looked a bit seedy. Once there, the walk down the busy, city street didn’t relieve my qualms.  The visual irony of this sign was not lost on me.

And the new treatment plant at the entrance to the park was less than inviting.  Nor was the aroma of sewage, mixed with the briny tang of salt marshes at low tide. 

But I’m glad I didn’t turn back.

Because I had read this place all wrong.   Beyond that point, the view changed dramatically. Like so much in life, just behind the daunting fa├žade was a captivating experience.  Sea breezes caressed a seascape worthy of a Winslow Homer watercolor, complete with old fishermen.

Most strikingly, when I went out on the rocks to get a better shot of them, I found this submerged boat.  It lay just below the surface -- a mysterious relic.

And behind this, in another sense, was a story of how it got there – one most likely forgotten, not unlike the little known fact that these New York harbors were once a prodigious oyster bed.

I kept wondering about that boat.  After a while, I approached two of the old men and asked them if they knew how it got there.  “You mean the one that ran aground last week?” the one replied.  I said this one was much older and pointed in its direction. But he was more interested in telling me about the recent incident.  “Yeah,” he went on.  “Some guy who didn’t know the water.  They think it’s easy, coming in here.  But it’s not. What they oughtta do is scope it out at low tide.  Then they’d know how to navigate.”

Spoken with the wisdom of a salty sea dog.  And it did make me feel better about last week.  Low tide does, indeed, have its purpose.  Knowing the mud is the only way not to get stuck in it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Benched Week 42: the stark park

The little park looked so inviting.  I could see it across the street through the high windows of the ballroom where I was working in downtown Dallas.  In the sunshine, it looked like a small, shady oasis in an urban desert.

When I finally carved out a half hour for bench sitting on the last evening of the event, the sun was still bright and hot.  I peeked into the park.  Under the shade of the trees, there wasn’t much: a small cascade of water surrounded by cement walls.  No grass. The only benches looked stern.  There was a slight mustiness about it -- or was that the scent of loneliness?

Disappointed, I lit out for another park I knew about, a few blocks away.  Recently built, it was an expanse of grass lined with small trees and tables and a few benches.  This was everything the other park was not: sunny, open, filled with people – and loud.  In the middle of the field, a hard-core aerobics class followed the pounding beat and loud commands of the instructor. 

I sat on a bench for a bit, but couldn’t concentrate in the midst of such militant enthusiasm.  If the first park had reminded me of a spinster’s house, this place was like a beach condo on spring break. 

Today, I preferred the spinster’s place.

It took a full ten minutes after returning to the ascetic park before I understood its charms.  The concrete walls, so severe at first, acted as a sound buffer.  The constant splashing of the water covered over what remained of the traffic noise.  And the stones under my feet? They forced me to look up and appreciate the verdant trees above me.  I was wrong.  It wasn’t a spinster’s house.  It was the secret corner of the attic.  The blanket fort.  The crawl space under arching bushes in my neighbor’s yard where I liked to hide as a child.

And, after another day of (literally) drawing conclusions during the conversations of a room full of people, this is exactly what I needed: quiet contemplation.

It seems like much of life is spent either looking for a crowd or escaping from one.  The same holds true for my art.  I enjoy The Show that comes with scribing.  But I need the quieter moments to see if there is a small voice inside with ideas of my own.

So, here’s to those still, austere places – and moments – that force us to be quiet.  And to those stony grounds that, gratefully, make us look up.