Monthly Archives: April 2011

Public Display

Couple kissing at the Dupont Circle fountain

When I was eleven years old, I travelled briefly through Iran with my parents during the reign of the Shah. Besides the wonderfully beautiful mosques and the little girls—much younger than I—who were woken from their afternoon nap to demonstrate carpet weaving to us (I felt so guilty), the thing I was most astonished by were the grown men walking down the street holding hands or with their arms around one another’s shoulders.

That was something you never saw in the West at the time. Yet it seemed to be common there, an unremarkable expression of friendship and camaraderie. I thought it was wonderful.

I don’t know whether that kind of public display of affection is still condoned in Iran. I do know that the regime there is in general vehemently intolerant of any form of public behavior that might even vaguely hint at the possibility of eros. Totalitarian regimes generally frown on the inherent freedom, unpredictability, and ungovernable power of love and its expression as physical attraction.

I am in favor of public displays of affection. Not the OMG GET A ROOM type, mind you, which is a form of social bullying (“We insist you take note of our mad passion for one another! Behold our lust is epic and not to be denied! Your tepid, pale lives are pathetically insignificant.”) But hand-holding, walking arm in arm, a little canoodling on a park bench—of these I whole-heartedly approve.

Our culture is so saturated with images of commerce and violence that displays of affection feel like a small but salutary salve on the big wounds in our souls. The world is not just buying and selling and controlling. There is also a gentle pleasure to be found in the entirely uncommercial exchange of mutual delight.

It is a sad thing to note that it still requires real bravery in most places in this country for two men or two women to walk down a public street holding hands. Half a century ago, or less, that was equally true for mixed-race couples.

So: kiss the one you love in the town square. And don’t turn away from the other kissing couples who have taken their places in the sun. We are who we love, and we should never have to be afraid to show the world our true selves.


A Year Ago: Kennedy Center Evening

Kennedy CenterI went to see a performance of the Shen Wei Dance Arts
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Aubade

Maple leaves and cherry petals

Since I became an adult, virtually all the sunrises I’ve seen have arrived at the end of a sleepless night.


A Year Ago: A Rider Vanishes

On the Capitol Crescent trail.

I spent a lovely couple of hours this afternoon in Bethesda…
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Query

The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason. —John Cage

Mulch

Fallen petals and wood mulch

Flowering trees have their own second season of Fall in the heart of Spring.

Like confetti after the parade has passed or the festive leavings of a wedding party, there’s something mildly melancholy about a scattering of petals. This is a picture of discards.

Sort of.

The brown mulch was purpose-made to nurture new life. The fallen petals will contribute as well. If you look carefully at this picture you will see a handful of new green shoots already emerging from this largesse.

Even when we are spent, we still have something to give.


A Year Ago: Bow Before Spring

Purple tulips.Yes, it’s another picture of flowers…
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Otherness

Furled fern

Sticky, spiky, raw, strange. Is it a plant or an insect? Something not quite healthy or sane from outer space, maybe.

The further away from our own branch of the evolutionary tree life gets, the more inclined we are to see it as a potential menace. It starts to look uncanny or evil. Without the semblance of kinship to calm us, we revert to a primal fight or flight response.

These tightly furled spirals are not embryonic fists clenched for a punch or alien larvae poised to burst forth and eat your face. They are baby leaves folded efficiently into a fibonacci space, waiting for enough energy to unpack themselves and spread out into the light.

Fernhead

To be truly civilized we must strive to see the beauty of the alien and the unknown, the elegance and genius of things that are most unlike us. (And this is not the same thing as fetishizing the exotic, which is just another way of reinforcing our own norms.) We have to learn how to not panic in the face of the uncomfortably unfamiliar.

One day, if we survive long enough, we will encounter true aliens: creatures who do not share our DNA at all. If we have not learned by then how to breathe through our fear of difference—how to seek and honor beauty in new contexts—the consequences will undoubtedly be tragic.

Fernheads


A Year Ago: Reflection on Dining

Restaurant exterior.I can see myself here…
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Decay, Two Kinds

Metal plates, concrete, twigs

Husks, metallic and organic.


A Year Ago: Clichéd and Unconcerned

PuppyThis lovely little soul was rescued bodily from the hands of irresponsible custodians…
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Onward

Wooden boardwalk, Roosevelt Island, Washington, DC

There have been times when it felt like my life was on rails. I just glided along in the appropriate, predetermined direction, confident about arriving at the proper station in due course. It was relaxing, if not especially exciting.

There have been other periods in my life when I felt that the universe was quietly lighting my way, putting up sign-posts that others might overlook but that I could read (if I would), whispering hints in my ear, and subtly elbow-checking me when I veered off in the wrong direction. That was great fun, like a treasure hunt, an adventure.

And then there are the many occasions when the way forward is so obvious, so clearly marked, that only a fool would chose a different path. Let’s see… shall I head off into the tangled swamp or stick to this nice, dry, level boardwalk?

And yet I find myself asking: where’s that clean, well-maintained path headed, anyway? The destination’s not actually visible from here. And just because most everyone else seems content to go that road, doesn’t mean it’ll take me where I want to be.


A Year Ago: Splendor

Lynn and I went to the Smithsonian Craft Exhibition…
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Hallelujah

Flowering dogwood

For reasons that I have yet to fully address to my own satisfaction, I’ve drifted away from the forms and arguments of religious practice. This is not terribly unusual, but it’s interesting considering that not so long ago I was taking courses at seminary and trying to discern whether I was called to ordained ministry.

Whatever the state of my theology, I am still wholly willing to say amen and again amen to the return of the sun, newness of life, and the gifts of beauty, hope, courage, peace, and love.

Abandoned

Empty house in afternoon light.

You don’t have to go to Detroit to find abandoned properties being reclaimed by the elements. I live in a prosperous section of DC; this house is a block away from Wisconsin Avenue, half a block from a big supermarket, and surrounded by wealth and seeming stability. Yet it has been empty and disintegrating for years.

Now the only things that dwell here are the wild things that come in from the cold and the late-afternoon light that bounces around, through, and off the remaining windows.


A Year Ago: Elements

Bread, Oil, Garlic, RosemaryBread, oil, garlic, rosemary…
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Rain Chain

Rusty yellow chain against pavement

We are who we are. Life experiences can change us, we can learn, and Buddhistically speaking, there’s no real, continuous self at all, and yet—we are who we are.

I could have made this picture today; the weather is miserably cold and gray and rainy again. But I didn’t. This photograph is nearly ten years old.

Ten years old!

It was taken with my first decent small digital point-and-shoot, the redoubtable Canon PowerShot S110, which gave me a fabulously huge 1600×1200 (almost 2 MP!) image. And it’s clear that on that July afternoon in 2001 I was, in no small degree, the same photographer I am today.

My eye was caught by the bright yellow and the texture of the rust. The brick pattern and the strong diagonals and triangles created a visual web for my attention. I took the picture, and when I got home I fired up Photoshop and made sure that the image conveyed what I found compelling about this intersection of color, texture, and pattern.

On the one hand, this degree of consistency is reassuring, even consoling. It suggests that I have a personal style that is somehow linked to my identity, my self. I guess you could say that I have an eye.

On the other hand, it’s a bit worrisome. Am I so predictable? Have I done no significant growing or learning in the last decade? Am I stagnant or, worse still, moribund? Maybe I have only one trick up my sleeve, and I keep playing it (pathetically) over and over, deluding myself that I’m conjuring something different and new.

Coming to grips with the true parameters of personal development and transformation is one of the tasks of our middle years. With the passage of time, we become ever so much more so ourselves. The accumulated momentum of our habits, personality, and life-history threatens to sweep us on a largely predetermined course unless we are willing to invest a tremendous amount of effort and energy to steer our individual life’s ship of state in a new direction.

Is there anything you care about enough to wrestle mightily with the wheel of your fate?


A Year Ago: Some Knots

Pole and wires.This is going to be one of those images that only its maker likes…
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