Sun-day in the Arboretum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome days, no matter how much might be amiss in the world that I should be personally attending to, how well or poorly I slept last night, or how many responsibilities are begging for my attention, I’m simply incapable of my usual brand of thrashing. I don’t have it in me to wrestle an idea to the ground, chase down my inner critic, or argue a point, even with myself.  On those rare and blessed occasions, particularly when they fall on one of the first days of spring, when the sun is just warm enough to go for a walk without a coat, I’ll often pick up my smaller camera and do just that.

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Today was one of those days. So while I had some ideas that I had intended to write about today, I’m not sure what happened to them. I think I lost them in the Arboretum, possibly under the magnolia tree with its impossibly large pink blossoms.

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I’m sorry to report that I haven’t solved any of the world’s problem’s today, but the world erased all of mine.

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“Close to Home”

Sunday evening, I returned from spending three and a half days in Port Townsend. While PT is only two and a half hours away, I came home to that feeling you have when you’ve been away on vacation a while and you notice details like how much the wisteria on the gate has grown, how the leaves on the dogwood have started to change color, and how badly the front of the house needs painting.

Ironically, I was in Port Townsend feeling far from home for the “Close to Home,” workshop led by Stuart Sipahigil, and Ray Ketcham. When my daughter asked if I’d learned a lot in the workshop, I told her “yes, but not in the way that you might think.” “Close to Home,” as Stuart presented it, is a concept, not a recipe. Stuart isn’t interested in teaching anyone how to operate their equipment so as to achieve better photographs, he’s interested in helping photographers see differently; to see their own personal environments as ripe with possibilities for wonderful images.

To that end, he and Ray offered exercises such as plunking each of us in a spot for one hour with the instruction that we were not to move – not even 10 feet. When Stuart pointed at me and then at the bike rack sitting at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the not yet open bookstore on the main road in “downtown”, I looked at him incredulously. Seeing nothing immediately, I asked if I could at least climb on the bike rack (which I did). Anyone who knows me knows that asking me to stand anywhere for one hour is a major challenge.  Of course the bike rack perch yielded more than I could have initially imagined and I actually came up with a couple images that I really like! 


Each of us was also given a personal assignment that we had half a day to work on. I was given the boat harbor – not the harbor in town where visiting tourists moor their pleasure craft, but the working harbor south of town.  I had no idea what to expect there. I arrived early Saturday morning fortified by a large cup of coffee. Four hours of making photographs later, after searching for and trying to effectively represent the “soul” of the place, I desperately needed food. Making my way up the hill to the farmer’s market, I plopped down in the grass in the sunshine with an enormous fresh salmon sandwich for a brief respite, digesting the morning and hoping that the memory cards in my bag held the feeling I had discovered in the harbor. I had so much fun that I think it would be safe to bet that I’ll be found haunting docks in Seattle some time soon to add to that collection of images.

While I spent the days in Port Townsend, I spent nights sleeping in front of a fire in a rough summer shelter/cabin about 45 minutes away with only the mice for company. The cabin sits on a piece of land my family has owned since I was seven. I left there early and returned after dark every evening. I watched the sun turn the Olympics pink in the mornings above a layer of low fog sitting on the mirror smooth water. In the context of “Close to Home”, I saw all of this with different eyes and realized that though nothing there is unfamiliar, it can all be fresh and new every day if I only open my eyes and pay attention. I think Stuart will be happy to know that I ended up, on my last morning, camera in hand, at 7am, lying in the wet sand of the beach.

 
If I had to choose one image from the whole weekend, it would be this one.

One morning, as I drove towards Port Townsend on Center Road for the umpteenth time this year, I was struck by the beauty of the valley and pulled over. I jumped out of my car, imagining the photograph I wanted to make. To my disappointment, I evidently terrified the cows grazing in the foreground of my photograph, and they took off running away from me before I had a chance to press the shutter once. I fired off a few frames anyway because it was a pretty scene, but it wasn’t what I was after. As I turned to walk back to my car, I noticed the cows on the other side of the road with the fog in the trees behind them. Contrary to their pals across the road, they apparently were not afraid of me, as they actually approached the fence separating us. I giggled to myself as I stood there, thinking about how all I needed to do was stop, slow down and pay attention. Though this image was made outside the framework of the workshop, for me it captures the essence of what Stuart was trying to convey.

Lyon

As a 17 year old, I spent part of a school year homesick and lonely in Lyon, largely missing the city’s charms. Living with a French family who spoke no english and attending a local “lycée”, I was so far out of my comfort zone that I truly couldn’t appreciate it. I arrived just after Christmas to snow on the ground, which, in Seattle, is a rather rare treat. In Lyon however, the snow sat on the pavement of the sidewalks and streets getting filthy and smelly (think lots of dogs, few parks and lots of poop mixed with melting snow on the sidewalks). It was cold and gross and I had no one to talk to as I walked to and from school trying not to slip in the brown slush. With only two years of high school french under my belt, I sat through eight hours of philosophy a week, falling asleep in class nearly every day from the sheer exhaustion of trying to understand what was being said.

Returning to Lyon as an adult, I’m always surprised at how much it offers. For the last 20 years one of my Irish cousins and her husband have lived just outside the city, giving me reason to come back on several occasions. Usually, its been a stopover to meet her and her family to head off on some crazy adventure with our combined lot of six children. But this time, with the kids all well on their way to grown, I arrived to spend some time with her, her husband and sister. It had been over 10 years since I’d seen any of them, so we had a lot to catch up on. No grand adventures were planned, just being together.

Mornings usually found us long at the kitchen table munching croissants and drinking coffee regardless of the schemes concocted the night before. Whatever it was seemed to take on less urgency on the heels of yet another 2am bedtime. Some time after noon, we’d all of a sudden realize that the day was escaping and come up with an improvised plan based on how many hours remained until dinner. On one outing into town we checked out an area called “the docks” – previously warehouses along the river – which is being completely redone to house clubs, cutting edge furniture and interior design stores that cater to a hip, young, multi-cultural, international set.

An orange cube building initially caught my attention, but at further inspection, the buildings on either side matched the orange cube with their own innovative but less outrageously colorful elements.

We wandered through the medieval warren, “Vieux Lyon”, with its narrow alleys, covered walkways, and secret passages built to protect bolts of silk, (an industry for which Lyon was known up until some time in the 19th century). Theoretically, we were trying to decide where to eat dinner but got sidetracked by ice cream in a central plaza near the river, which gave us the opportunity to spend more time teasing each other, laughing and telling stories. But this is Lyon, and meals are serious business here, so after wandering and window shopping a little more, we retrieved warmer clothing to ward off the evening chill and launched ourselves into the evening’s next culinary adventure.

Some time since 1979, Lyon became home to a collective of artists who paint giant murals on the walls of the very ordinary urban residential buildings that line the banks of the Rhone and Saône rivers. Now, every other block sports a building or two painted with elaborate trompe l’oeil designs and enormous pictures of life in Lyon. I’d seen a few small, decrepit versions of these in the old part of town, but crossing the river, I looked up, stunned to see the playful, colorful paintings ornamenting the same buildings I had trudged by daily lamenting to myself the dreariness of this town where I’d landed.

After four days of hanging out with cousins, exploring the country lanes near their home as well as the contrasting newer and older parts of Lyon, I headed off on an early morning train to Italy, the second leg of my pilgrimage to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in too long.

Saying goodbye, we vowed to do this again sooner. It was a new way of being together for all of us. No major plans, no destinations, no need to entertain young children, just hanging out, talking, eating and being. As I’ve said, I’m still learning how to do this thing, and I can’t say that there weren’t moments when I looked at the clock and thought, “Are we going to do anything today?” without an accompanying feeling of anxiety that indeed, we might not! In retrospect, I look back and think how silly that thought was. The idea behind it is that “if I’m all the way over here in France, shouldn’t I be doing something?” And being all the way over here in Seattle, I look at that and think, “how ridiculous.” Those memories of watching the royal wedding at 1am after finishing dinner somewhere close to midnight, sitting at breakfast until after noon and grilling steaks in the back yard are the ones that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the images from the cool trompe l’oeil paintings.

On Vulnerability

Since beginning this post almost two weeks ago, so much has shifted that I’m not sure I know where to start anymore. Yesterday, I sat down to write and got sidetracked reading my friend Jeffrey Chapman’s blog post and the comments following it. What I had already written seemed directly connected to what I was witnessing on Jeffrey’s blog. I was writing about watching Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability prior to my recent travels… that it must have set a tone for the way that I traveled throughout the next three weeks.

Having traveled a fair bit in France and Italy, I have a decent repertoire of memories to draw from. This time, something felt different. It wasn’t until I reflected upon the possibility that I was doing it differently that it all started to make sense.

Jeffrey’s post elicited a landslide of comments. Thoughtful and sensitive, full of depth and very personal, they came from the heart… The original blog post itself was unusual. In it, he was open and vulnerable about personal grief and loss. It was this vulnerability that elicited the ensuing rare conversation, which I found refreshing, exciting and heart-warming.

Waiting for the TGV to Lyon

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Family 4th of July

Returning to Seattle from a long weekend with family and fireworks, a quick summertime post seems a relevant detour from the travel narrative…

For years, I”ve loaded my tripod into the car next to coolers and shopping bags full of more chips, marshmallows, hot dogs and soda than anyone (or maybe just me) can possibly imagine eating. Alongside sleeping bags, dog beds, dogs and kids, I squeeze my camera and personal belongings into the remaining corners and head off to our family’s rustic shelter on an undeveloped piece of land bordering a pristine bay. Continue reading

Wandering in Paris

Awakening to rain my last morning in Paris with my feet still tender from miles logged the previous 36 hours meant rethinking how I would spend the time remaining until my late afternoon train to Lyon. So after packing up and stashing my packed bags, a buzzing boulangerie around the corner lured me in with the promise of a cafe creme and a pain aux raisins, which provided an excuse to sit and people watch while writing in my journal. As I sat, I flashed back, “Proustian” fashion, to pleasant memories of this very activity. Usually, it wasn’t a way to get out of the rain and decide what to do next, but an end in and of itself.

I felt my body relax and settle into the corner I had chosen, simply enjoying the flow of tourists and neighborhood residents which seems to be characteristic of the Marais. There are other neighborhoods in Paris that have this same feel, and 33 years after first visiting Paris, I still search out the corners of the city where I can sink in and feel what its like to be a part of this flow rather than apart from it. Its easy to go to Paris, or other five star travelers hot spots, and be so intent on seeing what is there to see that one misses this element entirely. You arrive somewhere with a list of “must see and dos” and proceed to check it off, feeling like you’ve failed the place if you fail to see its Mona Lisa. On the heels of this trip, I realized that it is this element of feeling the spirit of a place that draws me. It’s connecting with shopkeepers, street vendors, waiters, and other travelers as well as witnessing the ebb and flow of ordinary people’s lives that draws me to new places at home as well as to foreign lands. I’m not sure I could have iterated that previously, but having the two contrasting experiences back to back on this trip brought it home. Continue reading

Paris, continued…

The other morning, while writing about turning 50, the image of a pretzel came to mind. No, I don’t feel like a pretzel, but the dot to dot path through my daily life seems to trace a similar shape. Only rarely do I allow myself the liberty of locking onto one of those dots and allowing it to lead me away from this prescribed circuit. Between professional and personal photography projects, writing, parenting, selling eye wear, outdoor adventuring, buying groceries for teen-age appetites, and failing at all attempts at domestic order, I feel pulled so many directions that if I become completely absorbed in any one, I will more than likely drop a thread that forms part of the weave and find myself dealing with the consequences later. At least that’s how it seems most of the time.

Having recently spent 3 weeks traveling, I know that the world doesn’t come to an end when I let go, but translating that into being home AND letting go is a bigger challenge. Being home and making space to pursue what calls me rather than simply falling back into the well-worn ruts of “what I’ve always done”. For the last 20 years, I’ve allowed my children’s “needs” to dictate the pace and parameters of my life. Now its time for that to change. The line a pretzel follows goes first in one direction, then another, overlapping and doubling back upon itself. In then end, a graceful shape is formed… a cohesive whole. If I stop and dwell a while at any of the points upon that line, the whole will not be impacted. The next point will still be there to guide me back toward the center, only to be drawn away and back again. The weave may change, but I don’t have to hold all of the threads anymore.

I write all of this in Seattle after rereading Parisian journal entries and editing more photographs from a month ago.  I smiled to myself noting the remaining mild discomfort of being on my own in Paris, footloose and completely free. I had forgotten that I felt that way on day 2. I wrote that I was having a hard time with the idea of no agenda and that I was feeling the need for some kind of “organizing principle” around which to orient. While my memory, and the photographs, clearly attest to the fact that I had no difficulty wandering here and there as ideas came to me, I was also up against some internal resistance to doing just exactly that. Continue reading