Each of us has our favorites in life. Unlike the casual “favorites” overflowing our browsers, personal favorites often are life-affirming and life-changing preferences embedded into our hearts by a process as subtle as it is mysterious. Asked to reflect on a best-loved moment or reveal which cherished bit of beauty we’ve pulled from the world’s storeroom to decorate our lives, we may pretend to ponder, to anguish just a bit, but in truth we know the answers. We’re just trying to ignore the world’s judgement on their merits.
Perhaps because these favorites are so personal, so idiosyncratic, we seem to find them fascinating. Yet another version of the old “choices” game was sent to me recently, a sign of that fascination. Designed to invite self-revelation, this one banished us to the proverbial deserted island, allowing only one book, one song, one memory and one vision to sustain us in our solitude. Responding wasn’t hard, as two of my choices have been fixed for years. Lawrence Durrell gets the nod for his exquisite, four-volume Alexandria Quartet, a palimpsest of the heart. Enya’s Orinoco Flow may be as much memory as song, but years ago its melody and rhythms carried me across the Pacific, repetitive and comforting as the sea. Hearing it today, I feel again the rise and falling of the deck. Leaning back against the insistent pull of imaginary sails I suffer the illusion, common after long passages, of once more being underway as earth herself begins to pitch and yaw like a green and verdant vessel.
Books and music are easy choices, but choosing one special memory is harder. There are as many memories as moments in life, but my final choice transports me to a room on Madrid’s Plaza Major, stretching out across the rough cotton spread and listening to the curtains breathe in the late afternoon silence. Time contracts, then expands with the rising heat, reverberating with the great bells of the city. I peel an orange, and watch a single bee hover near its sun-warmed skin. Blown forward in time, the curtains billow into my vision from Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea. The painting carries salt and substance as lightly as a breeze, and if the vision recalls Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea, if it somehow bends the rules by giving me yet another book and many more memories than the game allows, then I have chosen well.
Andrew Wyeth ~ Wind From the Sea
Eventually, one of these little games will stipulate an island with a broadband connection and ask for a favorite blog. How I would choose then, I can’t say. In the midst of the verbal clutter we call the blogosphere, there are writers serving up words that drip with the intensity and flavor of sun-ripened fruit. Some blogs breathe as softly as a faltering Spanish breeze while others, layered and impenetrable as Cavafy’s City, trace the labyrinthine longings of the human heart with passion and persistence.
Dispatches from Kansas is such a blog. Reading Tom Parker’s work, I walk the edge of consciousness just as I walked my childhood trestles, exhilarated by language, mesmerized by sentences unrolling like the hills. His photography, straightforward as a Midwestern greeting, now and then shimmers like pooling mirages on August Kansas blacktop. Browsing his site recently, I discovered this delightful photo.
It reminds me of my own first bicycle, despite those far-more-recent-than-the-1950s handlebars. It seems a perfect representation of childhood in a simpler, easier time – days when a child could abandon a bike on impulse without having to wrap it in chains and padlocks or remove a wheel. Where is this child? Playing ball, perhaps, distracted by a friend or fishing in a creek. It doesn’t matter. When hunger or darkness remind the child of home, the bike will be there, dependable as the cycle of days.
As I often do with images I enjoy, I went back to look at the photo again, and then two times more. When I returned to look at it a fourth time, I was utterly astonished. There, on top of the bicycle handlebars, was a bluebird. After a moment of disorientation – when had the bird flown in? how did I miss it? surely it wasn’t there before – I succumbed to simple amusement. Obviously Tom had added the bluebird to his bicycle with a little creative photoshopping, perhaps intending to determine who really was looking at his photos. I left a comment – an inquiry about the bird – and received a response. The bird had been there from the beginning. I simply hadn’t seen it. In fact, the image of the bicyle without the bird is my photoshopping, done in order to create the image as I first saw it. Here is the original photo, just as Tom posted it.
Once past my astonishment, I became intensely curious. On first view, and second and third, how had I missed the bird? What prevented me from seeing it? Tom asked, “Did you click on the image to see the larger version, where the bird is more obvious?” No, I hadn’t looked at the larger version. But even in the image above, the bird isn’t exactly hidden. It’s quite obvious, sitting there on its perch. None of it made sense.
Days passed, and I continued to ponder the mystery. One afternoon, I remembered an entry I’d posted recently on my own blog. Concerned with the plight of those known as The Disappeared, it highlighted an exhibit currently on view at the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie. One piece which moved me greatly was this street scene by Fernando Traverso.
From the Exhibit “The Disappeared”
Fernando Traverso ~ Argentina
Looking again at Traverso’s photograph, I began to wonder. Had the image of this bicycle so impressed itself on my unconscious that, looking at Tom Parker’s photo, I saw only the bicyle and not the bird, that extra bit of beauty perched in plain sight? Had the emotional impact of one bicycle shaped my perception of another?
There are no firm answers, but questions raised by the experience are intriguing. How do previous experiences shape our ability to “see” the world around us? Are we sometimes oblivious to the presence of beauty because of simple inattention? How do we learn to focus on what is, rather than responding to our own preconceptions? Should any work of art be judged after just one viewing, or are multiple viewings, multiple reads necessary? How can we move from being passive consumers of art, to being active participants in the experience of art?
Like the favorites we hold dear, answers to these questions will vary from person to person. Perception, it seems, is a tricky thing, and the world is not always what it seems. But thanks to Tom Parker and his camera, I intend to look a little more closely, a little more attentively at my world. There are bluebirds abroad in the land, and every one is worth seeing.