It was six men of Indostan To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.
From my photo archives, I found an album of pictures taken five years ago next week on my “birthday cruise”. I had been working at Discovery World, a museum in Milwaukee that owns a replica of a 19th century cargo ship they named The Denis Sullivan. For my birthday, I was gifted a short trip out of the harbor and back to dock. There was absolutely no wind that day, so though we unfurled the sails, we didn’t go very far or very fast. In the calm, I found that taking photos from all different angles became the excitement of the day.
My perspective on sailing Lake Michigan, therefore, was all about tranquility and discipline. The crew had everything “shipshape” and moved like clockwork. However, I’ve read accounts of shipwrecks on the lake that must have been the picture of chaos and terror.
Perspective makes a huge difference. In this complex world, we must remember the danger of a single story and humbly leave room in our imaginations for something outside of our own experience.
So, oft in theologic wars The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
What a great thing to contemplate: scale. How overwhelming our lives become when our scale references are distorted! For example, how imposing our thoughts can seem on the landscape of our lives. My daughter gave me an illustration of this: imagine someone holding a large book in front of your face and asking you what you saw. You’d see the book and maybe a bit of the room from your peripheral vision. Now, if you moved the book to one side, you’d still see the book, but you’d also see more of the room. It’s hard to make thoughts go away, but you can take them out of the forefront. That’s what meditation is about — being aware of your thoughts, but not letting them dominate your view. We make so many mountains out of mole hills in this culture. There is so much OMG; like MSG, it can make us feel lousy. Media hyper-activity and fear-mongering is like that, I think. We need to dial down the lens, deflate our egos, maintain a humble perspective. We are one leaf on a vast and robust tree of life. We are beautiful; the tree is beautiful. We are not greater than or less than the rest.
“Look wider still” was a slogan used by the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides in the 70s for their program curriculum. My mother was a leader at that time and this phrase stuck with her. She connected it to all sorts of insights and still does, even now when she is just about to become an octogenarian. I’ve always thought of this phrase as it relates to the way I am stimulated and entranced by a panoramic view. As a very young girl, I loved looking at a spreading seascape or landscape. I was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Illinois, vacationed in Michigan at a beach cottage, and then lived in California for 15 years. My personal panoramas are waves on the horizon, infinite prairies and fields, and vast mountain ranges. These always make me feel that there is a bigger picture. My anxieties are founded in the smaller loops of stress and the claustrophobia that comes from forgetting to look up. The best way to look wider, to look up, to get a healthier perspective, is to climb to the top of something. James Taylor might suggest going up on a roof, but I prefer to be in a natural setting. Up there, I feel calmer, more peaceful, like I belong to something bigger, more ancient and more durable. There my petty problems fade away, and I breathe easier.
“Photos aren’t objective – they show what we want them to show.” Concepts aren’t objective: they reflect our thinking. Delusions aren’t objective. Our thinking is only our thinking. It is never the whole Truth. Like castles in the sand, permanence is delusion, size is delusion. Shifting perspective is the dance of the cosmos. (see this illustration of the Scale of the Universe) “Solid stone is just sand and water, baby/sand and water and a million years gone by.” (Beth Nielson Chapman – in a song she wrote for her late husband; click here to listen) Listening now, I wonder: what is ‘alone’? What is ‘death’? Listening beyond the end of the song, I hear a cardinal singing outside. I am not alone, and life is all around. That’s what I really want to show.
This week’s photo challenge is about a grouping of perspectives: the big picture, a relationship, and a detail. I like the idea of shifting points of focus because awareness and depth probably can’t be captured at first glance in any circumstance. Perhaps the way you approach a scene can tell you a lot about yourself. When you go to a party and walk in the door, what grabs your attention first? Do you look at the big picture – how the place is laid out, how crowded it is, what music is playing, what food fragrances are in the air – and get a feeling about it all at once? Do you look for people you know and zero in on them? Are you drawn to particular objects and familiar or quirky things about the decor? If you find yourself spending time exclusively on one aspect, do you want to challenge yourself to turn to the others to see what you might be missing? It might be an exercise in awareness worth looking into. Here is a grouping of shots from my second year hosting the Wiencek family Thanksgiving:
This photo challenge is actually quite a useful meditation on perspective. I had thought about my options in taking up this challenge, ranging from skipping it altogether because it’s not an obligation, to spreading it out over a whole week to give me time to find something I love dearly enough to photograph it on purpose. I had thought about visiting the place where Steve & I had our first date, Glacial Park, while on my way to visit my kids back in Illinois. That is a place dear to my heart, and closer to being worthy of Jeff Sinon’s incredible nature photos of New Hampshire (I’m a big fan and follower. Do check him out!). But it would mean not posting until at least a few days from now. I browsed around the Internet for a while and lit upon a few threads that interested me. What is it that catches my attention? Perspective. I read a bit about Marfan syndrome. Ever meditate on how perspective changes quality of life and the level of fear you feel about something potentially life-threatening? I read about an American couple jailed in Qatar under suspicion of murdering their adopted daughter. The perspective on adoption is quite different in Muslim countries. How you think and feel about something is altered dramatically based on where you stand. I began to take that idea closer to home.
My partner, Steve, owns and operates an online book business. I might consider Scholar & Poet Books to be the “other woman” in our relationship. I don’t feel about her the same way that Steve does. To him, she represents his autonomy; she is a huge financial asset, and endlessly fascinating. To me, she is a dominating presence that crowds me out of closet space and Steve’s attention. She is also somewhat boring to me, as she doesn’t touch or speak. But I would like to make friends with her. I would like a different perspective on her. So I chose her for my subject.
I don’t know if you feel you only get one shot at life, one shot at any given problem. I do know that there are always at least two ways to take it on. Perspective. You can get a different one by moving just a little. It’s well within your range of powers.
Buddhism teaches me much about the interconnectedness of all things, about perspective in consciousness, about the dangers of dogma and claiming to know the capital T “Truth” about anything. What is this thing in front of you? You can give it a name, describe it with words and symbols, but that is not the reality of that thing. Those words and symbols are useful but limited. The experience of that thing is more, more than you can describe or symbolize, more than you can communicate. Yesterday, I went to Lapham Peak State Park and climbed a tower. Here are three different views of the tower. How do I convey the experience, the wind, the dizzying aspect of ascent, the vast horizon, the humor of humans who visit and the irony of our inability to depict our emotions and our consciousness of grand things? Perhaps these shots will give you a partial idea.