Sunday, June 28, 2015

Benched Week 82: I steal scenes

Artists are like go-betweens. On one side of them is life, humming along with a myriad of moments. On the other side is an audience. The artist’s job is to grab one of those fleeting experiences -- one that, hopefully, captures a bit of the beauty or the mystery or the truth of life, and hold it up for the audience to see.

Or, to think of it another way, it’s like reaching into a somewhat mundane film and pulling out a single frame to say, “Hey, everyone --this one is interesting!”

I think of this as I sit on this week’s bench. It is alongside a paved path in Caledonia State Park in southern PA, a path that crosses a nearby bridge and ends at a public pool. The park is surprisingly busy on a Wednesday afternoon. But, after all, it is summer.

And the light is gorgeous, flickering off of the mountain stream and silhouetting people against a bejeweled background.

As I watch, camera in hand, I’m conscious of being outside the flow of life. I am the Observer. I catch snippets of conversation as people stroll by. I take a shot of a young mother with a son on the bridge.

Followed by a sweet vignette of a man pointing out aquatic life to his grandchild.

Frankly, it’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside, looking in. And a bit sad. Better to be living life than simply recording it.

But that’s when my son shows up. And for the next day, as planned, we camp together, cook together, hike together. It’s still a bit strange to be taking photos along the way. Each time I do, I feel like I’ve stepped outside the camaraderie and become the Observer again. But Todd is an amateur photographer too (his specialty: gorgeous shots of food), so he understands.

Sweeter still is when we both stop along the trail during our hike and concentrate on freezing the motion of a bee searching for pollen.

Or stopping a ebony jewelwing on a leaf.

This is why I gravitate toward creating community in the process of creating images: it blurs the line between artist and audience. Ultimately, it’s the individual artist’s eye and skill that imbues a captured scene with significance. But as we work together to find those scenes worth capturing, there can be more than one hand holding them up for us all to enjoy.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Benched Week 81: prepared surprises

For all his storied skill at twist endings, William Sidney Porter (AKA O. Henry) never mastered the surprise beginning. And yet, here I was at the O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro, NC, having had only half a day’s notice to get there. The hotel itself was filled with unexpected delights, from its dark-wood lounge... the free copy of the namesake’s book in the room.

And so, when my event ended in the early afternoon, I went out into the blistering heat -- mentally adding bloggers to the short list that included mad dogs and Englishmen -- to walk to the nearest potential site for an interesting bench: Bog Garden. I was determined to find a surprise ending to the outing.

The garden itself was an anomaly. Acres of soggy forest are not what one anticipates in the middle of office complexes and shopping centers. On my chosen bench, I watched a blue heron serenely stalk in still water only a short distance from a Harris Teeter.

As I strolled the twisting boardwalk through the wetlands, I came across a man pointing a zoom lens at the dense foliage. “What are you trying to shoot?” I asked.

“That, over there,” he answered, pointing to a large bird on a distance branch. I recognized it from books as a barred owl, and just as quickly regretted that I don’t travel with my telephoto lens.

We talked for a while. His name was Tom and he was an avid birder and amateur photographer. He regularly visits the bog with camera in hand since, he said, it the best place in Greensboro to see birds of all kinds. That owl, I thought, would be the perfect surprise to wrap up this post, but it was just too far away. I thanked Tom for the insights and started back, disappointed.

Can we plan for surprises? I think we can in two key ways. First, we can put ourselves in situations where unpredictable things happen. Step outside one’s comfort zone, even if it means a hot walk in the midday sun. We wall ourselves in with predictability. Sometimes we need to scale those walls.

And then, we need to decide what a surprise is. If we had the facility to recognize the extraordinary nature of seemingly ordinary things, our days would be filled with wonder. Is it any wonder that children are so easily amazed?

Perhaps I just needed to find something a little less remarkable than a shot of a barred owl in the daytime.

That’s when I heard someone calling me.

It was Tom. I hurried back along the boards and found him. “I wasn’t sure you heard me,” he said, quietly. “But he’s moved.”

And there was the owl, sitting within the reach of my lens. It was in just the right place for a surprise ending.

Just like me.

Porter would be proud.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Benched Week 80: moments and memories

It had not been my plan to find a bench before my son’s wedding. But we arrived at the gorgeous Chadds Ford farm on Sunday morning with time to spare. Finding myself alone in the barn with this rustic bench right before me, I sat down and took a few moments to let it all soak in.

As you know, if you regularly read this blog, I’ve discovered that co-creating has become a major theme for me. Sitting on the bench, I had a chance to consider how many people had contributed ideas for the event that was about to happen.

A great number of the decorating ideas came from my son and his bride. The use of the farm-grown peonies on the tables. Mason jars coated inside with paint. Strings of lights.  Drapery.

Copies of the same day of the New York Times crossword puzzle were placed at each setting, commemorating the bride’s recently-departed, beloved grandfather’s hobby.

Her mom planted flowers outside. Her sister baked 200 cupcakes.

My wife added timely suggestions. My eldest son used his problem-solving expertise to hang various adornments.

I contributed my hand-lettering, first on direction signs.

   And then on the welcome chalkboard.

I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to realize that a wedding is a collaborative event.   After all, two families, linked by a relationship, come together and share their abilities and talents to create a memory – not just for the happy couple but also for those who come to join them in celebrating. It’s a communal experience, meant to give each person a story, which they then take home and shape as they retell it.

The collaboration, then, isn’t just in the making of the event (or, for that matter, a piece of art). The co-creating continues through the shaping of each person’s memory of what happened. It’s ongoing.

Just like a relationship. I’m so happy for my son and, now, daughter-in-law. They have a whole life ahead of them to use the everyday materials of life to fashion experiences – for them and for others – that can be framed and enjoyed throughout the years ahead.

Co-creating. It’s what a wedding – and a marriage -- is all about.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Benched Week 79: the deliberation of seeds

I had almost given up trying to find something interesting in my little patch of Corporateland, USA – aka downtown Arlington, VA. Above the park I chose, the looming buildings looked like giant Lego constructions.

There were a few green spaces to choose from, nestled between the corporate centers with their first-floor restaurants. One fountain glowed dramatically down a shaded walkway.

But it all seemed so cold and calculated. Pretty. But lifeless.

Until I saw Mackenzie out of the corner of my eye.

That’s the name given to this little child, poised with a watering can over a patch of dirt, presumably having just planted a seed. An inscription nearby said, “There now, you can grow.” Mackenzie forever lingers in wait over that spot, anticipating.

I can relate.

Growth is a deliberate process. Frustratingly slow. Whether it’s a garden plant or an idea or a child, growth demands patience in the waiting and diligence in the working. We do our part to get the environment right to encourage sprouting. But the progress has its deliberate pace. It’s hard to see the incremental changes.

But there’s pleasure in the unfolding. I know it’s pathetic to check my little vegetable garden out back twice a day, but I can’t help myself. Knowing I won’t see much difference, I’m comforted to know it’s changing, if ever so imperceptively. One day these yellow blossoms will be replaced with zucchinis. Far too many zucchinis.

And when they come, time will play that shimmering trick where it is, simultaneously, a blink of the eye and an eon. Too fast and too slow.

Thinking of this on my bench, a new sound grabbed my attention: the sound of a trumpeter, busking near the subway.

And it made me think of Will, our trumpet-playing son, who is to be married on Sunday. And though I’m tempted to wonder where the time has gone, I know the answer: into a long parade of moments. Some exhilarating. Some challenging. But all a part of the process of becoming. All watched over with the preparation and patience that parents know so well.  As do artists. And gardeners. Ever checking the conditions so as to say:

“There now, you can grow.”