Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Focusing on the Imperfections of a Life in Progress

A while back, I was photographing one of my son's scouting events and a scout leader stopped to make sure that I didn't miss my son's part. I assured him that I'd be there for my son, and motioning toward my camera lens, told him that "this is how I see life."

He smiled and said, "It looks better through there, doesn't it?"

I looked back in a moment of understanding and said, "Yes, it does."

Since that simple interchange, I've been wondering why I so enjoy trying to capture moments of life through my camera lens, even more than I do through my own eyes. I've been wondering why life looks better to me through a tunnel of glass and mirrors.

I hadn't been able to answer that question completely until last week when I took this photo of a half-spent dandelion puff in my garden. As I was flipping through the photos I took that evening, I stopped at this shot and smiled. It was one of those moments where you hold your breath just right as the breeze stops blowing, press the shutter, and capture not just 1/50 of a second of life, but the entire story leading up to that moment and a promised future to follow.

I had captured a single moment of this dandelion's life, perhaps a second before the breeze pried loose another seed whose wispy parachute would ride the wind across the neighborhood in search of fertile ground. The brown specks on the heart-shaped center told the stories of the similar, but unique journey of each seed already gone. Some seeds likely landed on the street or sidewalk, where they might take hold in the shallow soil of the pavement cracks. Others found their way into the neighbor's lawn where they will vigorously compete with the turf for sun and nutrients. Still more landed somewhere barren of soil or water, and withered with no chance of a future.

Since taking that photo, each day I've been attempted to capture a similar moment with other dandelions in our landscape. I've taken a plethora of shots of newly-sprouted dandelion seed heads, in their greeting card-ready perfection -- perfect orbs, the supermodels of weed fashion. While these shots certainly have some aesthetic value, they seem to lack meaning. I can't read the dandelion's story simply by looking at the photo.

The moments that show the imperfections of a life in progress are those that speak to me and read their story aloud. Standing right next to the perfect dandelion puff in our vegetable garden was another seed head, only five seeds still waiting for release. This flower, in the last throes of its predisposed genetic destiny, would soon wither and die by natural attrition or the blade of a garden hoe.

My mind wanders back to my previous agreement that life looks better through my camera lens, and I find myself wanting to renegotiate my assertion. It doesn't necessarily look better. Photography can capture moments of pain and ugliness just as well as it captures joy and beauty.

What a camera can do is freeze and focus an everlasting meaning of a moment in time in a way that our blurry eyes and memories can only approximate.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Watching Him Choose a Reflection

As my son has grown, I've been fascinated by what things hold his interest for extended periods of time. Kids of his age are notoriously attention-deficient, so it always catches my eye when he spends a lot of time investigating a new topic or working on a project.

He gets this wonderfully intense look in his eyes when he encounters something new that he finds interesting. He'll often sit and just watch something. Early in his life, I interpreted this as timidity, but I now recognize it as his way of investigation. He quietly consumes all the information he can, and then -- often weeks later -- express his interpretation of what he has learned.

Today, we visited the The Children's Museum of Indianapolis to celebrate the end of his three-week spring break from his balanced calendar school. As we walked through the main entrance, my wife and I told him that the afternoon was all his, that he would set the pace and direction of exploration through the museum's many renowned exhibits. Off he ran up the first ramp towards the paleontology area, and he didn't slow down until the museum's close three hours later.

While he experimented at the flow dynamics table in the ScienceWorks exhibit or followed the path of the billiard balls in the Rube Goldberg machine, I could see a young engineer emerging. As he stared marvelously at the Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging in the middle of the winding four-story staircase, I could see a budding artist gathering inspiration. With his new handycam in his palm, filming and narrating his way through the exhibits, I had flashes of a future documentary filmmaker.

At one point, I leaned over to my wife and asked, "I wonder what he's going to end up doing?"

In what amounted to a rhetorical question, I had summed up one of the wonders of parenthood. I get to watch my son explore the world and in that exploration find himself. If I manage to let him find his own way, facilitating his journey without imposing my demands and desires too forcefully, I stand to reap a great reward.

My job as a parent is to help him see himself in a variety of different mirrors. In return, I'll get to watch him choose a reflection.
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