Copper in the morning hours and gold at peak of noon,
And sparkling like a thousand gems until the silver moon
Highlights the constellations of diamonds in the sky—
My magpie nature challenges me. I don’t see any particular inherent problem with being attracted to shiny objects or distracted by what sparkles and catches my wandering, curious, childlike attention. Most of the time, anyway. But when it comes to how I respond to those attractions and distractions, I think I’m pretty weak-willed. I’m easily enchanted by the handsome and impressive, the glimmering and magical Stuff that catches my eye.
What is complicated is not that I like such things, nor even that I waste many a waking hour on admiring them. It’s when I covet them. When I spend resources more precious than my pining glances on them. When I fill up space in my home, my bank account, or my heart with them that would be far better spent on more substantial things. Love. Sharing. Living.
I hope that recognizing the flimsy character of such tinfoil treasures as most Things are is at least a healthy step toward not letting myself be led too far astray by them. But there is always danger in admiring any sort of tempting prettiness. My inventory of belongings is proof enough, especially when I go about tidying the house and come to the end of the day with boxes or bags full of books, clothes, kitchenwares, electronic devices, decorative objects, or any other kind of trinkets that are no longer so shiny and have fallen not only out of my favor but completely off my memory’s radar. Perhaps what I need to do is to train myself to look at such tempting collectibles as catch my eye with a magical pair of glasses that allows me to see how short their lifespan of use and pleasure will be, and how little the return on time, money, and energy I spend on them can possibly amount to in real terms. My lifetime’s garage sale value must be worlds smaller than what I invested to amass all of the frivolous wonders that ended up in it.
…What was I saying there? I just happened to look out the window as a dazzling butterfly tumbled past, and of course I had to follow it, and then that made me notice something red and glittery off in the distance…
This world is a dark place. War and strife, fear, hunger, hatred, greed, self-righteousness, and poverty gnaw the bones of suffering people on every continent at every hour. And all of these menaces are, in accordance with early expressions of the idea of Tragedy, nearly entirely the making of our own species.
Little hope, at least in my mind, of that sorrowful truth changing as long as our species continues to dominate the planet. We are deeply flawed. Even the finest among us tend to forget themselves and their mortal limits at time; regardless of how educated, high-minded and genuinely well-meant their attitudes and actions may be, it’s sadly true that underlying those attitudes and actions is a firm belief in their rightness. Only natural that it’s hard, from that perspective, to allow that others might have an equal possibility of being right, or at least as wise and well-meaning, as they themselves are, and to show them the full respect of that acceptance.
What, then, of accepting life among my fellow flawed beings in this imperfect world? No comfort is found in denial or in persistently, aggressively resisting what may not have the possibility of ever changing. But to accept this grimness as an eternal truth and let it lie like lead on my soul is no help, either.
I look to the stars.
Physical stars exist in a surprising number of places, many lower and commoner than the depths of the sky, and I look to them and rally as I realize that they stand, every one, as beacons reminding me of what is good not only in the nature in which we imperfect beings live, but what is good within us as well. Small as our fineness may seem, individually and corporately, at times, it does exist, and if there is to be any hope of overcoming the dark, it must come from the nurturing of every little glint seen starring that darkness.
I look to the stars in the indigo distance of the sky, sparkling like promises of better things as they look back at me. I look to the lesser stars of reflected light that dazzle on earth, the diamond dashes on every body of water and glimmering in every eye, never mind among real gems and the many things made expressly to be beautiful and good and positive. I look, more than anywhere else, at the multitude of stars that shine from the hearts of good and true people, people who are thoughtful and generous, merciful and hardworking, and kind and loving, sometimes despite and against the dark things of this world, and often, wonderfully, for the sole reason that they were made to be such earthly stars.
As an inveterate magpie, I’m admittedly enchanted by almost anything sparkly and glinting that happens to catch my eye. A flash of reflected sun from a momentary wavelet on a lake at eventide is no better or worse than a shred of tinfoil glimmering from the dark recesses of a trash bin, when it comes to attention-getting power. I wonder at times whether this attitude of mine spills over into accepting cheap substitutes for the real thing in areas of life and knowledge that matter far more than mere visual stimulation does.
Do I pay enough attention to my life and all of its contextual influences?
I do when I remember. But that’s never quite enough, is it? It can become a plain old excuse to say ‘I’m only human.’ So much more power is given us, if we dare to exercise it. No matter what my beliefs and convictions are, if I’m given the capability of questioning and examining them and growing through deeper listening and learning, should I not use that power fully and joyfully? I am reminded often enough by my failures and faults that I can only engage this discernment usefully for myself and have neither the power nor the right to assume my journey will apply to all (or indeed, any) others. This sojourn of learning, questing and listening, and yes, looking at both the shiny objects and those seemingly dull ones presented to me will lead, if I am both fortunate and patient, determined and humble, to a treasury more valuable than all of the scintillations in a world of costume jewelry.
When I sort and edit photos, it helps if I can create categories and subcategories that will help me to find and use them after the fact. If an event or occasion is short and simple in the relative sense of such things, the name of the event or occasion itself may suffice as filing ID, but what of things like our summer road trip that encompass 5 weeks, 6000 miles, a dozen states, 2 countries, 3 music conferences, a dozen members of the immediate family, a half-dozen motels and hotels, and ever so much more?
What I tend to do is create an all-encompassing title that all photos will bear, identifying them as part of the larger expedition, and then putting them into files and sub-files that clarify the who-what-when-where-why-&-how of them. This helps me have at least a slight hope of locating any single shot or group of shots from among the multitude that remains even after I’ve culled a multitude more. It also reminds me of what things became, either because of my continuing interest in them or by natural default of recurrence on the way, thematic in the event.
Not surprising, then, that this extended road trip would have obvious and substantial files of many very familiar subjects. To be sure, there are a quantity of such old favorites of mine that any moderately frequent or attentive visitor to this blog could easily guess. Given my blog header, I can start with my fondness for rusty, rustic old things (like me, naturally), mechanical bits and industrial loveliness. There are hints in that image, as well, of my magpie adoration of all things shiny-metal, glass, water, jewels, plastic and any other thing that glints to catch my avid eye.My many obsessions also appear in nature: flora, fauna, sea, sky and stone. If there’s a noticeable cloud formation or special kind of light I am lured to admiration of it. Insects draw me like, well, the proverbial flame-drawn moth. I’m an ignorant admirer of all sorts of vehicles that strike me as different or novel when it comes to my everyday experience, so there are always photos in my stash of cars and trucks, boats and trains, heavy equipment and the slightest, lightest personal transport other than feet. Feet, for that matter, can make perfectly entertaining objects of my camera’s affections, since people in general are also on my list, and character-full feet or quirkily clad ones or ones that by position tell a story ought to make marvelous image sources any time.In the case of human subjects, I do have something of a restrictive love, however. When I know the subjects of my documentation, I’d usually rather be interacting with them, so often, the camera sits idle and forgotten unless I have some sort of mandate to shoot. If I don’t know the people, I am bound by respect for their privacy almost as much as by my shyness not to photograph them at all. So aside from crowd shots and unidentifiably altered distant views, I’m not likely to include too many people in my panoply of for-art photographs.Where people congregate or what people have left behind, that’s all fodder for my imagination, though. I love buildings–the older or odder, the better–and their endless details, and whether they are homes or hospitals, offices or auditoriums, farm sheds or factories, they all have stories to tell. Ultimately, I suppose, that’s the overarching guide to my photographic peregrinations just as much as to my poetry and essays and drawing and every other expressive form of art I attempt: I am trying to discern, guess, or invent the stories behind those things I’ve seen.
When a singer’s voice takes hold and sways me, I imagine a pearl dropping into a deep, deep well. Its subtly rich sheen and its smooth look of perfection rolls at speed through the air yet seems to flow through it with an attenuated grace as though purity and love buoyed it up delicately and cradled it gently downward. At last, reaching the depths, the note, the pearl, begins its plunge–the fulness of the water embraces its fall–the ear draws in the note and pulls it soul-ward.
When the choir breathes out in flawless song, I am lost in the jeweled depths. Gorgeous and welcoming, the magnificent impossibility of such beautiful sound carries me, too, in its cradling care. And I fall–in darkness, in love, in joy.
There are numerous living things that spend time up in the trees besides the trees’ branches and leaves. All sorts of insects and animals, not least of all various nutty sorts of anthropoid mammals that might be not only cousins of ours but a little more similar to us in character than we generally wish to acknowledge. There are, of course, also those companion plants we know as parasites and, more mellifluously, their subtler siblings the epiphytes.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a pleasant enough excuse for familiarity with such entities, but mistletoe isn’t necessarily a specially handsome bit of greenery on its own, being a modest clump of small leaves with some inconspicuous pale berries clinging to them. Mistletoe, in fact, only really comes into its own in wintertime when the host oak trees shed their seasonal clothes and the puffs of the mistletoe’s tidy presence reveal themselves among the branches against the winter sky. This is not only reason enough for the plant to be a fitting representative for the winter holiday season but for us to appreciate it as a remarkable and pervasive and even likable presence in oak country, particularly since it does no notable harm to its host plant, unlike many parasites of all species.But if we’re to talk about the kinds of plants that make their homes in the trees, I’m even more of a fan of the epiphytes, many of which were only vaguely familiar to me some years ago thanks to occasional visits to botanical gardens and conservatories and parks. I find their ability to live, virtually, on air astounding and, somehow, poignant. Oh, I knew lichens and mosses and algae pretty well, what with living in the moist and miraculous Pacific Northwest among the old-growth rainforests and craggy granite faces and the richly green shores of Puget Sound and the ocean. But I can tell you that, like most people who live in treasuries, I knew the sparkle of the jewels but nothing of their true nature.
When I had closer contact with those parasites and epiphytes at last, it made for a short descent to fall in love. My lifetime romance with moss and seaweed expanded to welcome bromeliads and all sorts of pretty flowering epiphytes. I found all of that mighty attractive when I would get drawn in by the strangler figs and pulled into the pretty gloaming of the tropical house at the conservatory, the steamy glass room of the jungle displays at the horticultural center. So, so lovely. Then there was the trip to Panama. Ahhh, Panama.
Opportunity enough to see firsthand a whole lot of gorgeous bromeliads and previously unknown green joys in situ, to experience a whole new level of admiration for the variety and intricacy in the plant universe. Poinsettias, my natal flower as a December baby, meant little to a northern-born kid who’d only seen their showy bracts in hothouse display and known them merely as holiday decor: suddenly, on their own turf, I was able to learn that they can grow as tall as four meters and thrive like showy weeds in the sparest of small dirt patches. To see coffee growing in its accustomed shade on the slopes of a dormant volcano, overlooking rainbow-crowned valleys and orange plantations. And to look up into the cloud forest canopy and see tree trunks hugged all ’round by glorious orchids. Among the many wonders of the region, we stumbled into an orchid farm. Bliss!For one who had been impressed by but hardly addicted to orchids, to arrive in the environs of a farm specializing in orchids to the tune of about 2400 varieties was a stunning and heady shock of new delight. Finca Drácula, named for its showpiece orchid variety, was a superb baptism in the beauties of the breed. And yes, it did make me want to swing from the branches of the trees like my monkey cousins. What an irresistible lure is an orchid smiling down from the heights. Funny that the Christmas crop of mistletoe has led me the whole winding way to Panamanian orchid country. Then again, they could both inspire an urge to engage in frenzied kissing if one got caught up in their fantastic beauty.