Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Benched Week 88: the curious case of the rock-face door

Sherlock Holmes has been on my mind of late. (Hence the title.) Having recently finished The Great Detective, a fun read on everything Holmesian, I have been thinking often about mysteries. And curiosity. And the noticing of details.

But as I made my way to find a bench on Raspberry Island, in the middle of the Mississippi River with a view of St. Paul, I didn’t expect to find anything curious or mysterious, just perhaps something I could sketch out.

It was a sunny day, with a stiff breeze as I started across the bridge toward the island. Flags were snapping above me.

There’s not much on the island except some trails and a bandshell. But, thankfully, there was a bench with a great view of the city skyline.

As skylines go St. Paul’s is not spectacular. But the cliff on which it’s perched is rather unique.

And as I sat and took in the view, I noticed a singular detail (a nod to you, Arthur Conan!): a square doorway, cut into the rock face at a fairly inaccessible height. It begged questions: Why was it there? Did it open into a cave? What could be inside? Ever since my childhood, dark doorways have been like magnets to my imagination.

Dark doorways: an apt analogy for unresolved situations in life. We peer into them, hoping to get a glimpse what lies ahead, drawn by curiosity, held back by a vague sense of dread. There could be treasure waiting. Or a bear. Over this past weekend, I was re-reading one of my journals, wishing I could reach back and tell the me of twenty years ago what those dark doorways of the time led to.

Incredibly, as if on cue, a young man appeared at the top of the bluff and tossed over a rope. To my astonishment, he descended toward the hole, apparently as curious as I was.

Seriously, what are the chances I’d be here at this moment?

When he got to the doorway, he peered in for a moment then began his climb back up. The cave must have been disappointing. The only mystery that remained was whether his pants would make it to the top with him.

You know, maybe it’s one of God’s mercies that we can’t get a good look into our dark doorways, that we can't have a Sherlock surety about what lies ahead.  That me of two decades ago needed the ongoing unveiling in order to become the me of today.

The mystery is what makes the unfolding narrative interesting.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Benched Week 87: unicorns in the garden

I opened the solid, wooden door of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, and entered a little hesitantly. Expecting to find a docent hovering near the historical building’s entrance, I waited, feeling like I had intruded into someone’s home while they were napping upstairs. I wandered a bit, reading little displays. A bench in the living room beckoned, so I took a seat.

Overhead, muffled voice accompanied creaking floorboards. Perhaps James was getting up from that nap.

James Thurber (1894-1961) was a cartoonist, essayist, playwright and humorous author. Despite losing an eye in a childhood game of William Tell gone tragically wrong, he had a wry view on life. His work was steeped in satire, but a gentler sort than today’s sharpened swords of irony.

His cartoons have an odd looseness to them. His friend, Dorothy Parker, said they had a “semblance of unbaked cookies.” I like Thurber’s dogs, in particular. I find that my go-to drawing when I’m leaving notes in hotels or drawing for kids on planes is a something similar. There’s something disarming about a silly dog.

This one is mine.


He credited his mother for giving him his sense of humor. Years ago, while researching the childhoods of creative celebrities,  I discovered a delightful story about Mrs. Thurber.  One time, when dignified visitors had come to the house, she descended the stairs in her dressing gown, wild-eyed and hair disheveled, saying that she had just escaped from the attic, where she had been locked because of her profession of love for the postman!

There’s some serious playfulness at work there.

Outside, I found a shady side-yard, where two stone dogs kept me company. And across the street, a ring of bushes surrounded a statue of a unicorn, eating a lily. That image came from one of Thurber’s many fables, in which a husband tries to convince his wife that he has seen a unicorn in the garden.

It’s a nice analogy for Thurber’s created world – where the whimsical and the unexpected bump regularly up against every day life. (Just like with another of his creations, Walter Mitty.) And in my art, I strive to make the whimsical nibble at the edges of the world’s seriousness.

On my way back to the hotel, I passed under an imposing piece of sculpture at the Columbus College of Art and Design. But I’m happier thinking of ART in lower-case letters. Art as the unicorn in the garden.

Or a slightly goofy dog.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Benched Week 86: pears of wisdom


 Bill greeted me with a pear. I had come to turn one of our occasional chats at his farm into a bench-sitting, and the bench on his back porch was littered with the fruit he had just picked. So he offered me one.

More than that, he handed me the picker and said, “You’re tall. You should be able to reach the ones I couldn’t. Make yourself useful.” So for the first time in my life, I was plucking Bartlett pears off of branches and dodging the ones that volunteered to try to bean me.

Bill looks every bit the part of a Pennsylvania farmer. And so he was, growing up – that is, before he became the head of the Education department at Bucknell University, across town, as well as a nationally respected consultant. Farmer and professor: it’s as incongruous a combination as the peacock that roosts in one of his trees.

At 87, he’s still mentally sharp and active. As we sat down, I directed our conversation with a simple question: “To what do you attribute your long life?” Knowing Bill, I knew he’d answer me with stories. As with all of us, memories gather with the passing years like pigeons on a silo.

He answered simply: “My work ethic.” Then, closing his eyes – as he often does when remembering – he explained.

As a nine-year-old farm boy, he was milking cows two days a week, barely strong enough to carry the buckets of steaming milk back across the snowy field from the barn. And at age twelve, he was mowing fields of hay with a team of horses. His mother and he would haul it into the barn with hay forks. “I was exhausted beyond words,” he said. “But then she would get me a glass of cold buttermilk and we’d chat a while. And then she’d say – and I’ve never forgotten this – ‘Do you suppose, Bill, we could get one more load of hay in the barn?’”

Just one more load. That became a life motto for him. Just focus on doing one more thing. Then before you know it, you’ve done much more than you expected.

It’s an ethic that drives me, as well. I try to push the boundaries of what I can do. Go a little farther than expected. Give myself an extra challenge – whether that’s trying out pastel on foam core boards or adding one more event to an already full month.

But when is “one more load” one too many? Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the mixture of work and life, even turning down a few gigs to spend more time at home. It’s a question Bill has thought much about over his life as well. I shared with him some of my struggle with this. And he listened and answered with the insight and affection I appreciate so much in him.
It’s hard to get the balanced answer to life’s big questions -- without the wisdom of family and friends. And as Bill has taught me, those friendships are sweet.

As sweet as a hand-picked pear.