Monday, July 13, 2015

Benched Week 84: break up the bricks

During my first photography course in art school, I had a “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” moment. A fellow student brought in his series of photos, every last one focused on a different crack in a sidewalk. I don’t know if this was a serious attempt at minimalism or a last-minute desperation play, but I thought it was exceedingly silly.

This came to mind the other night when I was sitting on a bench in the historic district of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Surrounded by picturesque buildings, I wondered if I could zero in on just a portion of a structure and make it visually interesting.


It’s harder than I expected. Taking away the broader context of a recognizable landmark, one finds fewer tools in the toolbox: color, shadow, texture, and angles become all-important.

Tinkering with framing reminded me how I love the interplay between hard and soft elements, between the geometric and the organic. A bare wall is blandly regular. But throw in a shadow from a tree – or better yet, the brilliant green of a palm – and a wonderful dance begins between something established and something developing. The immovable meets the unstoppable.

This is the interplay at work in creativity. For ideas to thrive, they need what I call a loose framework. Boundaries, if spaced too tightly, can leave no room to play; but having no walls at all actually inhibits the imagination.

Take summer. We all know how daunting it is for kids to go out and manufacture fun in the wide, empty plane of summer. They need a framework. Not the wall-to-wall schedule that so many parents submit their kids to. But just enough structure to ignite their imaginations. To help knock the rust off of those grounded spirits.

Like this idea by a friend of my son. She drew up this visual list for her kids as a guide toward what to do when they’re bored. I love this so much. I wonder how I never thought of doing it myself! (Not to mention she is a potential scribe in the making!)

This is the interplay at work in our lives. We all have frameworks. The question is whether we have space inside those walls to play. I know that when life becomes so restrictive, when it’s like you’re bricked into your schedule or your responsibilities or your grind, it’s not so easy to push the bricks back. So, maybe it’s time to add some little surprising accent. 

Paint a mural on that imposing wall.

Or at least hang a crazy towel in the window.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Benched Week 83: the green nearby

To my delight, Savannah lived up to its reputation of charm.   As my brother and I walked the streets early in the morning, cameras in hand, exquisite houses presented themselves at every corner, as if permanently dressed for a debutant’s ball.

This, I had expected. What came as a delightful surprise was the green. The copious lavishness of green. The city planners, far ahead of their time, dictated that twenty four square parks be evenly set throughout the city so that no one would live more than two blocks from open space.

And because of that, Savannah could be called The City of Benches. I’ve never seen the likes of it. Not just public benches. (Forest Gump’s bench was famously set in Savannah.)

But private ones, as well, tucked onto porches and in quiet, semi-hidden gardens.

Within the green, like a kind of antebellum nesting doll, were the trees. Long-limbed live oaks, draped with Spanish moss.

And on those trees were the most fabulous of things, new to me: resurrection ferns. Dry and brown for long periods, they refresh to a brilliant green with rain.

What a perfect metaphor for vacation. We often frame vacation as a break from something. It’s just as much as a reconnect to something. Paul Theroux, the accomplished travel writer, put it well:
“Travel, which is nearly always regarded as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite: nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture.”

We spend much of our life making life manageable and predictable. Travel shakes us awake, reminding us that there is a world of surprises outside our little spotlight of focus. Another journeying writer, Pico Iyer, delights that the joy of travel is seeing everything in a different light. And from a crooked angle.

Which makes me thankful for this blog.

I realized in Savannah that this habit of sitting and noticing is the reason why my frequent travel hasn’t lost its ability to surprise. My benches give me the rain I need to keep my ferns regularly refreshed.

It’s what we all need: open space close to where we live.