Bearing Witness

I imagine I look odd walking through the park with my dog, me carrying whatever toy he’s dropped, my camera, a loupe, and a pair of binoculars.  Probably even odder when I suddenly and without warning drop the leash, step on it, pull up my camera and line a bird in my sights all while talking to the dog, encouraging him to stand still while I attempt to capture a bird that is probably backlit, behind layers of leaves, and likely perched on a tree limb blowing in the wind.

I asked myself the other day why I do this.  I mean, what is it about photography I find so appealing that it’s now been a consistent pursuit for enough years I’d rather not add them up?

I think it comes down to this: photography is a recreation of life. There is in any given image a combination of fact and fiction. A bird, for example, looks the way it looks in a final image based on an endless combination of variables. Some of them I control.  Many of them I don’t.  In the end, any image represents one interpretation of a single moment and the odds of getting an identical image ever again are minuscule–just like the rest of life.

In this act of controlling what can be controlled and dealing with what cannot, there are lessons photography offers.  For example, you can see the same thing a multitude of ways and they are all correct.  And then there’s the expansiveness that results from constraints:  you see more looking through the blinders of a camera frame–it’s as if restricting your view causes better vision.

There’s also the inherent paradox of time.  You capture a moment by being completely in the present with a vision of a future image.  But by transforming that moment into an image, creating that vision of the future, you’ve brought with you a moment from the past. It is the only actual form of time travel that I’m aware of.

Most importantly, when I shoot, I am listening, looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling with the concentration of a hound dog in the hope of gaining a clue about where my next subject will unfold. Thoughts about the past and future get pushed aside, making space for the possibility contained in the present.

Ultimately, photography is an act of gratitude.  Gratitude for having borne witness to something remarkable–whether it’s a weed being struck by the sun, a puffy cloud that happened to show up just when I was looking, or the sudden appearance of a rare bird.  The desire to capture each of those moments requires appreciation of them as subjects worthy of attention.

In this way, photography gives gifts.  It hands me moments I would not have noticed had I never picked up a camera. Never mind the endless struggles and failures at getting exactly what I envision.  Just having been there, fully there, to witness those moments is enough.

Choosing Lessons

Reflected cranes at Hiwasee Refuge

Reflected cranes at Hiwasee Refuge

What does it look like to be a whole-hearted person (to borrow Brene Brown’s term)?  Do whole-hearted people rage against the unfairness of life from time to time?  Do they experience inexplicable irritation or anger?

Brene talks a lot about practice.  Not about being perfect, but about embracing imperfection and learning to correct mistakes where you can and trying again.  I kind of feel that’s what my life has been like.  Trying to take a lesson from a situation and then going out there and trying again.

This circling pair just kept going around and around

This circling pair just kept going around and around

The part I struggle with is repeating the same lesson over and over without seeming to grasp it.

I recently told a good friend a story about choosing the lesson we take.

I was keeping emails.  Neatly filed in organized folders with the thought I might need to produce one someday.  On the rare occasions I needed an old email, I had it.  No matter if it was from 3 years ago.  I had it.  Never mind it might take me an hour to find it–I had it!  And that felt like a triumph somehow.

I wonder what compels a Sandhill Crane to fly in endless circles?

I wonder what compels a Sandhill Crane to fly in endless circles?

Then, my mail file got too big and started having problems.  I had to clean out a bunch of old emails.  As soon as I did, someone needed something from 2 years earlier.  I no longer had the email.

I turned to my office mate (who was and is also one of my best friends) and said, “It just figures.  A day after I finally get rid of an old email, someone needs it.  No wonder I never want to get rid of email!”

She either didn’t hear exactly what I said or chose to ignore it.  Her response was, “Yeah, all this time keeping track of all that junk and when you don’t have it, it turns out not to be a big deal.”

Perhaps they're practicing getting their wing flaps in sync?

Perhaps they’re practicing getting their wing flaps in sync?

She was right.  It really wasn’t a big deal, I just thought it was.  This is a great example of choosing the lesson.  Without thinking about it, the lesson I was going to take was “I can never, ever, ever get rid of another email because I never know when I’ll need it.”

My friend reframed the experience to the exact opposite.  Had she not said that, I never would have realized I could choose which lesson I took from the experience.

I can’t say I’ve gotten over email hoarding, but when I do purge, I do it without guilt or fear now.  Although, I still probably keep more than I should.

Reflections melting away in the ripples

Reflections melting away in the ripples

Perhaps what I need is to have a committee of friends help me figure out what the possible lessons are I can take from the more challenging events in life that shake me to my core.  Perhaps where I fall short is not in failing to learn “the” lesson but on thinking there’s only one possible lesson to learn and missing the one that works for me.

Life Lesson Selection.  How’s that for a committee name?

Lost in the reflections from the trees

Lost in the reflections from the trees

Graduation Day

Today, I went to the hang gliding training hills.  It was one of those days that combined ridiculous mistakes with unexpected successes.  Although I had my share of spills and chills today (see video), in the end, I passed the required test of successfully executing 4 Hang I flights in a row.  This means I move to the big hill.  Not the mountain yet (thank goodness!) but from the bunny hill to the big hill.  It’s a momentous occasion.  As my instructor said, I’ve worked hard for this moment.

I pause and think about this for a moment.  I don’t believe I’ve ever worked so hard for so long on achieving a novice skill level in my life.  This is a point of pride–to have stuck it out for so long just because it was fun.  I let go of my expectations, goals, and frustrations and just had fun.  Had I done anything else, I would have quit after the 3rd day out on the training hills.

As it is, I’ve flown down that baby hill so many times, I’ve gotten attached to it.  I can tell stories about the community on that hill.  The women who inspired me to keep trying–especially one who told me she’d been coming out for over a year and was still learning to land on her feet (she’s been coming out infrequently).  The student who was 60 years old and learning to hang glide for the first time. The dogs who have accompanied me through my journey from ground school.  The instructors who insisted it was OK to be on the slow plan.  Even the view from the hill of the mountain ridge, the big hill, the trains, the deer that would occasionally wander by.

All of it together kept me coming back.  And now, I find myself attached to that small hill.  As I ride the Kubota over to the big hill, I find myself actually tearing up a little.  This catches me by surprise.  I’m confused as to whether I am sad or overjoyed.  Having never given much thought to this day, not really believing it would ever happen, I find myself unprepared for the sudden emotion.

I perch on the edge of the big hill looking down and am amazed at how much bigger it really is.  I look across the training grounds and realize that while I have been enjoying the journey instead of focusing on the destination, I managed to arrive at the destination full of wonder and excitement.  This is a new lesson for me after a lifetime of holding so tightly to goals that I squeeze the life out of them.

The wind doesn’t cooperate today.  There is only one direction to fly off the big hill and we decide today is not the day for my first flight.  As I head back down, I am neither disappointed nor relieved.  After all, it’s taken me 5 months to get here, I’m in no hurry.