Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Benched Week 67: anticipation

One of the great things about traveling is anticipation.  I look forward to seeing a new place – however briefly.  And meeting up with workmates I enjoy.  And the spontaneous art I create.  Most of all, I cherish coming home.

These bench outings, too, are filled with expectation.  I love the improvisational nature of heading out onto the streets of a city or town, not knowing what it will give me in return for the investment of my time.

Today, under brilliantly blue skies and into spring-like weather, I explored downtown Atlanta with high hopes.  With any luck, I’d find something Christmassy along the way.

High as my hopes, a Ferris wheel greeted me as I entered Centennial Olympic Park.

But the park itself was a disappointment.  Plenty of benches – but many of them were occupied with sleeping old men.  Without running water in the fountains or green on the trees, it was a sad landscape.  Even a snowman display looked a bit odd and mildly creepy.

Other parks were the same: tired old men and little else.

I admitted defeat at the final stop, a corner square framed by a wall of water, where I settled for watching guys play what I might describe as High-Intensity Profanity Chess, judging by the loud conversations.

And interacting with this lively guy, who was convinced I was a reporter and posed for the newspaper article.  He was entertaining, though a tad scary.  Especially when he started telling me about his half-brother Jesus walking on water.

For me, there was no great Aha moment in the afternoon's wandering.  No gripping realizations.  Just the pleasure of being fully present in a place and time.

Here’s the thing about anticipation: you can’t guarantee the actual can match the expectedAnd maybe that’s good.  Because sometimes what shows up, though unexpected, is better than what we’ve convinced ourselves we want.  We might desire what is wrapped tidily and prettily in our mind’s eye when what we really need arrives wrapped in something far more ordinary.  Like swaddling clothes.

If these Benched posts have taught me anything, it’s to look for the quiet, small surprises that usually go unnoticed.

But then, either to reward me or contradict me, I received this gift: as I walked back to my hotel, I turned a corner and discovered a giant wreath, radiant in a shaft of late afternoon sunlight.  Stunningly beautiful.

The ordinary and the spectacular.  The glorious brought down to earth.

I guess I found something Christmassy after all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Benched Week 66: buoyed by rain

Sometimes, rain can be welcoming.  Seattle, living up to its wet reputation, greeted me this afternoon with the meteorological equivalent of a sloppy kiss on the cheek.  A steady drizzle met me as I left the hotel.

Why then head out in the rain to find a bench?

I wondered that very thing as I sat down on my chosen seat in a park just off the edge of the shopping district in Bellevue, WA.  What could such a dreary landscape hold for me?

Turns out: a heavy dose of calm.

Just what I needed.

The day started with a jolt of adrenaline.  Ready to make my long drive to Dulles, I started the car in the driveway to warm it up and somehow managed to lock myself out of it!  Panic surged through my body as I realized the implications.  My heart pounded.  I shouted in frustration. 

Between calls to Alison and AAA, it was resolved quickly, but a pointed lesson had been made. Besides to never do that again, the loud warning was: You’re not handling the pace of my life as well as you thought.  As clear as a road sign.

So, I sat on the bench, the rain lightly drumming on the umbrella above me, and willed myself to slow the pace of my thoughts.  Take some deep breaths.  Soak in the scenery.

In the distance, people happily skated in a covered rink. (Cue the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts music.)

Nearer to me, a young mother pushed a stroller around the circular path that passed by my bench.  Her umbrella was a welcome splash of color in the drab and darkening scene.

It’s funny how when you slow down, things ease up into your attention unbidden, like the quiet friend who stays behind after a party.  As I sat there listening, I suddenly realized the sound of the rain on the umbrella reminded me of something.

Rain on a tent.

And just like that, a sweet memory flooded back.  I’m a boy of eight.  I huddle with my family around the picnic table under the screen tent adjoining our pop-up camper as the rain quarantines us for the day on our trip across the country.  I hear the shuffling of the cards being dealt for another round of cribbage.  I feel the checkered plastic tablecloth under my bare elbows.  I smell the aromatic smoke of my father’s pipe.  I taste the sweet tang of Tang in a plastic mug.

Smiling at the remembrance, I get up and walk back.  I feel lighter inside.  And the rain seems to match my more buoyant spirit, transforming the streets into a diffused reflection of the Christmas lights.

Cheered by a rainy day.  Seattle style.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Benched Week 65: thankful

Dallas on a cold, December Monday wasn’t very inviting.  But I stepped out into the cutting wind and empty streets with a purpose: to get to the church I had seen from my room window, nestled in among the newer buildings like an elderly aunt at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving.

That’s why I wanted to find a contemplative space.  I wanted to give thanks for two things I’ve learned in this year and a half of bench sittings.

1.  Senses wait to be used.

When I park myself on a bench, I take out paper and pen and start writing down all the things I hear, see, smell, feel.  (As a rule, I try not to taste things on public benches.) These senses are not small things.  They are tremendous gifts, and underutilized ones at that. I’m constantly surprised and often delighted by the sounds and sights that exist just beyond the narrow spotlight of my attention.

It’s like an archeological dig. Obvious things, like the enormous pipes that dominate the front of this church’s sanctuary, lay on the surface. 

Only time and a willingness to keep looking can dig up the deeper treasures, like the radiant watercolor feel of the stained-glass windows.

Or the subtle curves of the descending dove.

I’m thankful for the ability to perceive and appreciate the pleasant contrasts of light and dark, of smooth and bristly textures, of rich green against dark wood.

2.  Stories wait to be discovered.

Look at these hanging bells.  I found them to the right of the altar.

There are people behind these simple ornaments.  Those who crafted them.  Those who hung them.  Each of them has a motivation, a story behind their part in the placing.

I’m thankful for the ubiquity of narratives, because they are links between people.  Between the teller and the hearer.  Between the artist and the audience.  Often, we don’t get to hear the stories behind the objects and art around us, but just the presence of purpose in them makes them meaningful for us.   That building, that sculpture, that bench is there because someone made it and put it there.  For a reason.

Be forewarned: exercise your senses and you’ll develop an appetite for stories.  One leads to the other.  But don’t worry – there’s a veritable feast of narratives for those who will take the time to sit at the table.

And for that, I am truly thankful.