This week’s photo challenge theme is Pattern. Visually, this is a very strong subject in photography and has been illustrated in countless dramatic and stunning ways by much more talented artists than I. But what an interesting philosophical theme as well! Are patterns created by humans, or are they natural? Humans have a special knack for identifying and arranging patterns as well as re-creating, extending, and imposing them on all kinds of things. Is that a function of our orderly brains, our consciousness? Of course, there are also examples of patterns in nature….but, again, the concept of ‘pattern’ is something we invented. It wasn’t as if a DNA string said to itself, “I think I’ll create a pattern.” It was a human who saw what was in front of him/her and said, “Eureka! A pattern!” So, pattern…is it a real phenomenon or a construct of our consciousness? Discuss. (or just look at the pictures!)
Pema Chodron writes in a book called “Comfortable With Uncertainty”:
According to the Buddha, the lives of all beings are marked by three characteristics: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction. Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are. The first mark is impermanence. That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and changing, is the first mark of existence. We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this. Yet at the level of personal experience, we resist this basic fact. It means that life isn’t always going to go our way. It mean’s there’s loss as well as gain. And we don’t like that. …We experience impermanence at the every day level as frustration. We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death. …The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating to impermanence. They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.”
Much of my life and energy of the past 10 years has been spent trying to cope with change, as I watched my husband’s health deteriorate and my children grow from an innocent childhood into a difficult adulthood. Five years ago, my husband died at the age of 47. In my most agonizing moments of wrestling with impermanence, I would take myself for a walk. Two blocks from my house was a place I liked to call “my prairie”. It was a place where “relaxing gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change” came naturally. At that time, I’d never heard of Pema Chodron and knew very little about Buddhism. But I could see change all around as leaves turned color, decayed, and returned to the soil where new shoots would eventually spring. Cloud formations came and went, as did the warmth of the sun. Paths mown in the prairie grass grew indistinct and were redirected. Small animal carcases seemed to melt into a puddle of fur and bones until even those were carried off or disappeared. Change was constant and friendly, not the scary beast I was beating from my front door every day.
“My prairie” became a very special sanctuary to me. This is where I went on September 11, 2001 to think. This is where I went when I returned to my old neighborhood after moving in with Steve in 2011. This is where I will wander following the Bridal Shower my daughter’s best friend is throwing for her in June. I bring myself and all my changes into this sanctuary, and I feel immediately embraced by the bigger changes of the Universe in its course. All the impermanence, egolessness and suffering of my life seems to settle down into just What Is when I am here. I feel at peace. It is my pleasure to introduce you to my picture of Change…
This week’s photo challenge is hosted by a nature photographer. His shot of an icy falls reminds me of some that I took at Wehr Nature Center…and for that reason, I want to go in a different direction. (Yes, I fear comparison!)
“Lost in the Details” is an interesting posture. Are you forgetting the big picture? Are you so overwhelmed that you are purposely choosing to downscale? Or are you simply appreciating the most minute things in wonder? Details… are they petty? or pretty?
This would be a great theme for macrophotography. Unfortunately, I don’t have the lens. Here’s one detail shot that I’ve posted before that I like:
And here’s one that I took this Wednesday after our latest snow storm:
I enjoy details…and I always want to be reminded to look up! (or as my mother would quote from her Girl Scout leader days, “Look wider still.”)
Photo credit: my little brother, aged 7. I set the shot up for him on my Canon AE-1 (a gift from Jim) and asked him to do this favor for me so that I’d have a picture to take away to college in 1980.
January 7, 1984
July 3, 1992. Recovering from open heart surgery. Mom tries to kiss it better.
December 2008. Eyes wide open.
The Kiss. What a photo challenge! How do you participate in a kiss and take a picture at the same time? Or if you’re not participating in the kiss, why are you photographing it? Are staged kisses different from spontaneous ones? Should kisses be documented, or should they be private? How many kiss photographs do I even have in digital format?
Well, that last one became the deciding factor. I have others in hard copy of my kids being kissed: as babies, on birthdays, at graduation and that kind of thing. I even have one of Hershey’s kisses that my husband arranged on the floor in a heart for the anniversary of our first kiss. These few tell a timely story, though. Five years ago today was the last day I kissed my husband. It was the day after Valentine’s Day. We went out to dinner at a local bar & grill, came home and watched TV, kissed each other good night and fell asleep holding hands. He never woke up. The clue to ‘why?’ is in the third photo. What’s different about the fourth photo? Different guy…and my eyes are open. Thirty years with Jim, full of youth and fairy tale and children and love and kisses, and I was often dreamy and often afraid. Four years with Steve, and I’m learning to face things, be aware, and take greater responsibility. Intimacy is even better when you’re fully awake. IMHO.
I am working on finding The Middle Way in my life and on communicating what I can of that journey to anyone who might find that helpful…with my own children in mind as always. The other day, I came up with a phrase that I am finding useful in describing the continuum of experiences needed to grow and develop as a person: “Feed and Frustrate”. We all need a certain amount of feeding, starting in infancy when we are in our most dependent phase, and continuing through adulthood. We have physical needs, emotional needs, and intellectual needs. How do you determine what is a ‘need’ and what is a ‘want’ and what that certain amount actually is? That’s a good question and leads to examining entitlement, which I will get to in a moment. I want to take a look now at the other end of the continuum and describe our need for frustration.
Frustration, challenge, resistance, a force up against we must push is a very necessary part of development. Consider the emergence of a butterfly from its cocoon. Many well-meaning folks have discovered a curious thing. If, in their effort to be kind to animals, they assist a butterfly in its struggle to free itself from the structures surrounding it, the insect will weaken and die. The butterfly needs the activity of straining to get fluids moving to its wings, to strengthen them for flight and to dry them out. A similar thing happens if you facilitate a chick in hatching from an egg. The work to chip away at the shell, the time and effort it takes to accomplish that task on its own, is vital to the chick’s health and makes it more robust. Without that hindrance, the chick remains weak. We need to frustrate our children and ourselves enough to stimulate our ability to access our own strengths.
Working out the balance of feeding and frustrating is a lifelong endeavor. I find myself looking at my adult children and wondering how I did as a parent. I became a mom at the tender age of 22 and felt all those biological and hormonal urges to protect, provide, nurture, and “spoil” my kids. I also had a pragmatic sense of limitations. My mom might say that’s the Scotch in me. I am frugal. My kids call me “cheap and weird”. I’m not sure I had a notion of the value of frustration, even though I’m sure I frustrated my kids unintentionally anyway. So, they didn’t get everything they wanted, but I’m not sure I taught them a “work ethic” or a “frustration ethic” very well. I am not sure if my parents taught me that, either. Regardless, the responsibility of developing that ethic is my own. It is the responsibility of each individual to examine their ideas of entitlement and challenge themselves to develop the resources necessary to achieve their goals.
I like to learn through story and art. I think of examples of characters who live out their “feed and frustrate” scenarios and find some tales to be inspiring, some to be cautionary. Too much feeding as well as too much frustration can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. One story I’ve been following lately is that of a young man who is an NBA basketball player in his second year as a pro. I like watching Jimmy Butler play. He has the kind of untapped strength that seems to increase with the number of challenges he’s given. While his teammates recover from injury, he gets to play more minutes, and he seems to be growing up before my eyes. I did some background checking and learned that he was abandoned by his father as an infant and kicked out of his mother’s house when he was 13. A friend’s mom eventually took him into her home and gave him some strict rules to follow…and he blossomed. The feed/frustrate formula made him confident in his ability to improve himself, which he keeps on demonstrating on the basketball court.
This idea is not only pertinent to individual lives, but also to systems. Politically and economically, how are we balancing the feed and frustrate formula in order to support a robust society? Are we giving too much assistance? Are we giving too little? It’s a good thing to re-evaluate over time.
So, perhaps I’ve given you something to think about. How do you see the feed/frustrate balance in your life? Where do you think an adjustment might help? If you’re a writer, what is happening on this level in the story you’re working on now? How does that dynamic work in your characters’ lives? Thanks for listening to me hash out my thoughts!
Do you have a photo which invites the viewer to look beyond? Are there hidden depths in the background? Is the focal point just a framing for the rest of the picture? If it’s not clear why we should look beyond, tell us! Lead us through the story in your photo.
December 22, 2012, just at dusk. I am upstairs, in bed, cold, alone. The world did not end, even though the sun is far away. I feel disconnected from warmth. I look out my window. The neighbors advertise their jolly associations, but I do not belong to that club. I look beyond…the sky is aflame, fire licks around the turquoise expanse of our atmosphere, the sun invites me to the outer edges of my vision. There is the belonging, there the community, there the warmth. Beyond. The Universe is bigger than we imagine, and so are we.
I was in a mood. A little pouty and weepy, my inner 4-year-old whining, “I just don’t feel special!” God, why does this keep happening every month? It’s so ridiculous. Okay, rather than stuff it and wait for it to go away, I will wrap that little girl in my own arms and listen to her. She wants to feel loved. She doubts her self-worth every once in awhile and wants someone to show a preference for her and please her. “Little One, you are precious,” I tell her. I am taking responsibility for caring for this vulnerable one. Me. Passing that burden on to anyone else is manipulative and fosters a kind of co-dependency. I don’t want that any more. Oh, but I used to rely on it pretty routinely. I had a husband who, for 24 years, lavished me with gifts and compliments and love letters. I have been with Steve now for 4 years. He has never even bought me a greeting card. I do not want him to be other than he is, and I believe he loves me profoundly. So, what is the love letter game about? “What’s in a love letter, anyway?” Steve asked.
Six parts flattery to one part youth…or is that a martini? So I began tomake a list of the elements of a love letter, Cat Stevens’ song “Two Fine People”running through my brain.In one column, I put the parts that I know Steve would never embrace. In the other column, I put the bits that I think he does communicate, albeit in person and not in writing. The list began to resemble another amusing song: “Title of the Song” (by DaVinci’s Notebook), which you really must click on and listen to if you never have before. …Now, wasn’t that fun?
So I showed Steve the little orange Post-It note that carried this weighty list. On the left, I’d written “flattery; promises: to rescue, for future, to provide; declaration of desire”. On the right I’d written “honesty, appreciation, gratitude, description of how I love”. I told him that his description of how he loves is unique and authentic to him and doesn’t resemble Cat Stevens’ (“…though Time may fade and mountains turn to sand…’til the very same come back to the land”). He walked to one of his bookshelves and took down his “Bible”, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “How’s this for a love letter?” he asked and read from “Song of Myself”:
The smoke of my own breath;
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine;
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs;
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore, and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn;
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice, words loos’d to the eddies of the wind;
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag;
The delight alone, or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides;
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—(there are millions of suns left;)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books;
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me:
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.
The little girl opens her wet eyes and looks wide. Wondering, feeling alive, an equal to the sun and the trees and the birds in the sky and every playmate in the Universe. Is this not Love, this embrace? I reckon that it is.
In my post a few days ago, (Oh! The Humanity!) I sent out a plea for examples of admirable human beings as an antidote to the kind of internet sensations who fail to inspire and instead make me nauseated. You know what I’m talking about, right? The rampant dumbing-down of our species, “urgent” stories of greed and fear and violence and stupidity and pettiness and the like are probably a dangerous toxin to our culture. Where are the role models who will help us do better and why aren’t we using our advanced media to promote them more often? For every “Who Wore It Better?”, we could be viewing 5 “Who Lived It Better?” stories. Why not?
I have enjoyed a morning at work in the kitchen and with the book business while listening to the music of my Mensch of the Day. This is an artist who has inspired me since my pre-adolescent days, and I’ve only just discovered this live recording from 2 years before his death. He is the recipient of the 1993 Albert Schweitzer Music Award and the only non-classical musician to be so distinguished. His humanitarian efforts supported the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, The Cousteau Society, and the Windstar Foundation. The CD I have was a concert for The Wildlife Conservation Society’s 100th anniversary. Ladies and gentleman…….John Denver: a singer and songwriter whose lyrics ring with authenticity and passion, whose music spans genres from country to pop to blues to rock, and whose commitment to peace and preservation permeated his career. As a cultural ambassador for the U. S., he visited China, Viet Nam and the Soviet Union and recorded a duet with a Soviet artist, becoming the first American to do so. In my mind, he follows in the footsteps of another hero of mine, Pete Seeger, who, at 93, is still active in the same kind of musical ambassadorship that promotes cultural tolerance and environmental responsibility. I did have the privilege of hearing him give a concert for children when I was in my single digits.
Internet news gives me a stomach ache. I just feel sick after browsing through photos and videos and stories about cruelty, stupidity, fear, and all kinds of petty, human activity. I really appreciate bloggers and others who post genuine evidence of our more noble capabilities. Although, sometimes this is attributed to “angels among us” or some non-human inspiration. Is kindness not a human trait? Justice? Wisdom? What do we gain by hesitating to credit people for exhibiting these admirable qualities and then splashing our media with all the “awkward” examples we can fit on a screen? Bleh…I just feel like I’ve been gorging on rancid movie popcorn. Humans plugged into more and more machinery, morphing into robo-sapiens, give me the same sour taste.
Please, somebody show me a living mensch! A human being, acting gracefully. Are there so few left? Browsing through my photo file, I realize that only a handful of pictures actually contain people. Is it because I find beauty in nature and form and so rarely in mankind?
Here’s one I did uncover. I took this shot last March. It shows a retired thespian giving a presentation to school kids on the process of making maple sugar one hundred years ago. He’s describing hand made tools, telling the story as if he were remembering his boyhood. He peppers his talk with jokes to make the kids laugh and pay attention. He is a teacher of old ways, engaging with new minds, passing on a respect for trees. He’s not doing it for remuneration or applause, he’s doing it because it’s important to him. And I think he’s a good example. Can you show me others? My stomach will thank you!
When Steve asked me on Sunday if I’d made New Year’s resolutions yet, I grumbled at him, “I don’t jump on that bandwagon.” I had a sore throat that turned into a head cold and was definitely sending out the “leave me alone!” vibe. I make resolutions to do better every single day of my life, and it often becomes an exercise in self-flagellation. Someone I admire does this kind of thing much better than I do: visit her New Year’s post here. (plugging my daughter’s blog – I typed ‘blugging’ first; suppose I can coin a new word?)
Actually, Steve and I had spent quite a bit of time last week discussing and deciding on goals for this new year. We call it “pointing our canoe”. One of the things I put on my list was to submit something to a publisher every month of this year. Another thing on our mutual list was to plan a weekly field trip to learn and research and engage in our love of the land (land ethics, land management, environmental education) and to get outside every day for a walk. I skipped the first two days of this year with a head cold, but I’ve managed in the last couple of days to walk to the car repair shop, the grocery store, the bank, and the cafe where we breakfast with his mom. Now, this might not sound like a big accomplishment, but let me add one bit of info – I live in Milwaukee. And this is what is forming outside my upstairs window:
That, my dear readers, is a tri-cicle (three-pronged icicle; just coined another word – where do I collect?) photographed through the screened window. The center section of this bad boy is about 4 feet long now. This is what outside is like here, and this is where I want to be every day. I don’t want to make it more comfortable, I don’t want to avoid it. My resolution is all about facing the world as it is and appreciating its wonder as a thing that I don’t comprehend or control.