Thursday, January 22, 2015

Benched Week 69: getting my docks in a row

There are two things that strike me about January.

The first is the cold.  Lately, it’s been a literal striking, as I vainly tried to outlast its pummeling on a bench in Brooklyn.

And in Bethlehem, PA, I didn’t even try.  I mean, look what it did to this woman.

Today, walking along the shoreline park in Chicago, it seemed like only the geese and the joggers were willing to join me in the stiff wind that sliced through my winter coat.

It made me empathetic for this sculptural captain, who I was dressed like, except my ski cap made me more of a common sailor.

The second thing that stands out to me about January was brought to mind when I found my bench looking out over an empty marina.  Without all the boats, the rhythmic geometry of the structures can be seen.  When the weather warms and the boats all come back, that simple overview will get lost in all the colors and movement and people.  Life will get in the quay.

January is like those docks.  It’s when we can see a line-up of the months to come.  The calendar awaits all the hand-written activities (in our house, only in black pen, please).  January is when we can clearly see the structure before, like at the marina, all the hubbub moves back in.

Hey, ships happen.

It’s fashionable to dislike resolutions.  I’m not sure how the tide turned on those.  I like to christen the launch of each new year with a personal slogan, something to keep in mind while the view of the docks is still clear.  This year’s rose out of lessons learned from last year’s bench-sittings: Watch for the small things.

Each day, regardless of the larger activities that may dominate, there are small moments that are worth paying attention to and investing in – passing conversations, small gestures, chance interactions with strangers.  I want to catch more of them.  And when I can, include a bit of writing or drawing.

Take this drawing I left for Diana, the housekeeping cleaning my room in Brooklyn.  She left a note afterward saying she would frame it.

Come to think of it, it touches on both of those January distinctives.  Small gestures and the warmth they bring.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Benched, Week 68: the smallest strokes

Sometimes, it’s not about what you write, but how you write it.

I hadn’t planned on posting during our family’s pre-Christmas trip to Williamsburg, but there I was, on a bench inside the Visitor’s Center, waiting for Alison and Grace to finish their shopping for something to remember the beauty of the season in colonial times.

Across from me sat a lonely Ben Franklin.   In front of him, three quill pens angled out of an inkwell like an emaciated headdress. Books, CDs and business cards filled out the table around him.  Ever the entrepreneur, that Ben.

“Book signings can be lonely vigils,” I commented.

He agreed.  And just like that, we began swapping stories of promoting our work, presenting in schools and finally, our interest in handwriting.

Ben’s alter ego was Mike, a former homicide chief detective from Baltimore.  In his retirement, he had discovered a fascination of old-style penmanship.  He was eager to demonstrate.

Dip.  Shake.  Scratch.  The pen moved carefully over the paper.

As he wrote, he informed me that a flourish was added below to keep someone else from turning a signature into a promissory note.  (“Ben Franklin… owes Bruce Van Patter a dozen Ben Franklins.”)

When he finished, I tried my hand at it.

It probably comes as no surprise to you, gentle readers, that I love lettering.  A good pen is like a found treasure.  I regularly study new typefaces, reveling in the nuances of different tails, legs and bowls.  (Type-geek speak, sorry.)  I seek to flourish in flourishing.

But more importantly, I’ve found that purposeful lettering is one of the simplest ways to add a little delight to someone’s day.  Recently, I’ve been taking an extra couple of minutes to fashion a note to housekeeping in hotels.

It’s a good analogy to hold onto as we peer expectantly into the new year.  Grand acts of kindness have their place, but cultivating a regular practice of little, regular gestures of unexpected grace may be more impactful.  For me, it could be a hand-written note to a stranger or lettered verses, specially selected for my wife and kids as a Christmas morning surprise.

To stroke the right note: a small thing with a big potential to bless.