Sunday, September 30, 2018

Listening Without Judgement

I spent three days up north this last week. My husband had to go for work, and he invited me along. Of course, then he grumbles about how he has to work, while I get to drive to all my favorite places, photograph my favorite buildings, and drink wine by the lake on a beautiful early fall afternoon.

While up north, I planned to do the second of five Listening exercises:

"Seek out a public or urban environment - a local coffee shop, a busy street corner, your rooftop. Again, for 10 minutes listen to the sounds around you. Try to take it all in, with equal value, without judgement. What do you notice?"

I planned to do this at the coffee shop where I wrote the very last Coffee Shop Chronicle in the series, way back in April of 2015. Surely, one of the mornings it would rain while I was up north, it was in the forecast.

The mornings generally started cloudy with a hint of the promised rain, but usually by nine o'clock the sun started to peek through. Then the rural farmsteads of Leelanau Peninsula called much louder than sitting in a coffee shop.

As luck would have it though, I had to meet my husband on the last day at a coffee shop in downtown Manistee. His sales rep. was dropping him off and I would pick him up to begin our two hour drive home. I arrived early, exhausted from my morning of photographing farm buildings and wandering cold, windy beaches. Since this coffee shop also serves sandwiches and soup, I figured I would eat lunch there and complete the listening exercise at the same time.

When I use to write the Coffee Shop Chronicles, I engaged in two creative skills - observation and eavesdropping. So I guess listening has been a bigger part of my writing life than I thought.

The hard part of this exercise is the No Judgement, that's all the Coffee Shop Chronicles were was judgement, yes funny judgement, but judgement all the same. And as I sat down with my bowl of Pasta Fagioli soup, two ladies at the other end of the shot-gun style cafe did nothing to help me let go of it. They were sitting next to each other at a small round table each talking animatedly on their phones to other people.

I really wanted a table in the window, but both were full. So I sat as close as I could hoping that eventually one of the gentleman would leave. As I was eating my soup, one of them got up, but he was just going to get a refill on his coffee. What I noticed about him was his camouflage shorts and his camouflage Crocs.

Just as I was finishing my soup, the quiet guy directly behind me at the other window table got up and left. I quickly gathered my purse, phone, tiny notebook, empty soup bowl and scooted over to his relatively clean, empty table. I wanted to make sure to beat the two ladies sitting at the table next to me, in case they had the same idea.

I brought my empty soup bowl to the dirty dishes pan, returned to my table and readied myself for ten minutes of judgement free listening.

I set the timer on my phone, cradled my bent head in one of my hands, and closed my eyes. These are the things I heard:

  • The radio - I did not recognize the song. 
  • The two ladies just below me talking to each other.
  • The buzz of the cooler holding bottles of pop for sale that was right behind the two ladies.
  • Ice being scooped into plastic glasses.
  • The voices of the two girls working behind the counter.
  • Camo Croc guy behind me snapping his 3-ring binder shut.
  • Clink of the dirty dishes being taken out of the bin.
  • One of the ladies below me telling a story about somebody knocking on her screen door and she demonstrated by knocking on the wood table.
  • Pans banging behind the counter.
  • My pen tapping on the table as I was getting anxious for the ten minutes to be done.
  • The whoosh of the front door opening and closing. 
  • The building of steam for the latte machine.
  • Me chewing a potato chip.
  • Chair legs scraping across the wood floor.
  • The two ladies getting up and leaving - I could hear much better once they left. 
  • The ding of my timer going off. 
The ten minutes really went faster than I expected. I did feel a little weird trying to sit there with my eyes closed, although I kept my head bent most of the time.

I was surprised at all the sounds I could pick out, given that the ladies' conversation seemed to be the predominant noise. The only sound I was wrong about was Camo Crocs guy's 3-ring binder. It was really a three-hole punch.

Up next is Exercise Number Three:

Find a natural/green space within your town or city - a public park or garden or a tree in your yard. Close your eyes and listen for 15 minutes this time. How is the quality of sound different in this location compared to the location in exercise #2?

And I thought ten minutes was kind of long...but...I do have a place in mind.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Listening Exercise

My husband bought us a white noise machine for Christmas. I have to admit I love it. It helps drown out the sound of his snoring. In the summer we also run a fan in the bedroom (mostly blowing on me, but hey I am over fifty). The night is filled with constant and steady noise. But one thing I have noticed missing this summer, on the nights when it is actually cool enough to shut off the a/c and open the windows, is the hooting of the owl that often roosts in the tree outside my bedroom window, and the coyote calls in the woods across the street.

We seem to live in cocoons of steady white noise no matter where we go these days: at home, at work, in the car. There is no space for silence. Even church is no longer a silent place, and when we do have exercises in moments of silence, we are very uncomfortable. We may not like the drums and electric guitar, but we would rather hear them than our own breathing, or even worse, the breathing of the person sitting next to us.

I stumbled upon a listening exercise recently from a blog post by Kim Manley Ort. She, in turn discovered the exercise in the online publication Emergence (that's how inspiring rabbit holes work).  Kim shared her experience with the exercise, listing her results from each step and I knew I had to give this a try too.

My hearing ability is still pretty good, having given up really loud music a long time ago. But hearing always lags way behind seeing for me, which is why I was excited to try this exercise, to explore creatively with a greatly underused sense.

I have only completed the first exercise so far. Probably because I got so caught up in writing it all down before I forgot.

Exercise One: Where is the place you spend the most time indoors? Go to this place. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Spend 10 minutes with your eyes closed, listening to all of the sounds around you, nearby and far away. What do you hear?

I tried this exercise twice. Once on a 90 degree day with the windows closed and the air-conditioning on. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, I had just spent two hours mowing our grass and had taken a cool shower before lying down on the porch on my nap couch.

What I heard: the air-conditioning running (the whole ten minutes), the refrigerator, occasional cars going by, the windows and siding creaking as they were warmed by the sun. I also noticed the rustle of my shorts on the couch as I tried to get comfortable. The interesting thing is, when there was a noise I didn't immediately recognize, I tried to hunt it down, climb inside that noise. Some time in the last few minutes I dozed off. I dreamed of a tea bowl filled with colorful, small rectangular pieces of tissue paper.

The second time I tried the exercise it was late morning on a pleasant 65 degree day and the windows were open. This time I heard: the fountain in the pond behind our house, peepers down by the pond, an airplane, a cardinal, a crow, lots of cars going by on the road, the whine of a garage truck engine. Personal noises like my stomach rumbling, swallowing, and the chime of the breathe app on my Apple watch. There were more noises, but I was less curious about them. I missed the tea bowl.

Exercise Two: Seek out a public or urban environment -- a local coffee shop, a busy street corner, your rooftop. Again, for 10 minutes, listen to the sounds around you. Try to take it all in, with equal value, without judgement. What do you notice?

Exercise Number Two may be a good excuse to try my hand at a Coffee Shop Chronicle again and see how that goes. The "without judgement" part may be hard.

If you try Exercise One, I would love to hear your results.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

A Year with the Lensbaby Velvet 56

"It's easy to look at what is achievable in a single day and always come up short. But it is just as easy to underestimate what you can accomplish in a year."
                                                                               ~ Christina Rosalie, a field guide to NOW 

I began my 365 photography project purely on a whim. I took one picture that moved me deeply for no explainable reason on September 3, 2017. A year of heart-moving photographs seemed like the personal growth project I needed.

I chose the constraint of the Lensbaby Velvet 56 Lens for the project. The soft dreamy feel that the Velvet 56 gives images was perfect for what I hoped the project would become. I am a big fan of prime lenses, preferring to move myself instead of the lens. Also, having to manually set the aperture and focus, allowed me to compose better within the frame.

I had grand plans of being a different photographer these 365 days, one who photographed the people in her life on a regular basis, capturing special moments and daily life. And for a while I did good, of the 365 photos, 42 photographs have people. Half of those 42 were from my self-portrait photography phase. Only 14 photos were strictly of Findley, the granddog, which is pretty good, since he is a willing poser. That still leaves over 300 photos that were no different than the other 30,000 that have made me the photographer I have always been.

What I realized doing this 365 project, is that I spent too much time focused on getting the best possible shot for the day. How many little things did I miss? The bird songs in the air, the waves lapping on the beach, the ducks swimming with their babies in the channel. How many shots on my camera card did I dismiss because they weren't the very best shot that day?

Recently, I turned down the opportunity to go to Tuscany next May for a photography workshop. I woke up the morning after I had convinced my husband that it would be great idea, and said, "Don't worry, we aren't going to Tuscany." What I realized while I was sleeping is that I didn't want to spend our vacation solely focused on photography. I had just spent the last 365 days getting up every morning and thinking about getting a photo, I didn't want to spend our first trip to Italy with that same thought process.

Some people take adventures strictly so they can photograph. I am one who loves adventure for the sake of adventure, and I'll take some photos along the way to help tell the story. That doesn't mean that I don't strive for the best possible photos while telling the story. I would just prefer to stumble upon the shots than have to be hunting them every single day.

So in the end, I really am the same photographer that I was when I started. What this project showed me is that I love being that photographer.

I am experiencing some withdrawal from this daily shooting, wandering around in the morning not knowing what to do with myself. So, instead of doing short walks carrying a heavy camera, I am leaving the gear at home and taking longer hikes in the woods. This is especially appealing now that the temperature at night is getting down into the 50's. The mornings are pleasantly cool and bug free. Not everything needs to be photographed, some of life just needs to be lived.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Small Town Adventure - Bowling Green, Ohio

On a recent Friday morning, my husband called and said, "I have to be in Bowling Green, Ohio for a meeting Monday morning, do you want to come along?" Since his meeting was at 8:30 and Bowling Green is a good 3-1/2 hours from our house, he was planning to leave Sunday afternoon and stay overnight.

While he is asking me this question, I am lying on the couch on a bag of ice. I had tweaked a muscle in my back the day before, causing the whole right side of my body to feel like a pulled taut bungee cord. You would think my immediate answer would be, "I can't." But having been through this predicament before, generally a whole lot of ice and ibuprofen takes care of the problem in a couple of days. Since nothing was required of me but getting into the car on Sunday, I told him I would decide one way or the other Sunday morning.

Sunday morning while not perfect, I could sit with minimal discomfort. Googling Bowling Green, Ohio, an image search revealed: old buildings, a quaint-looking downtown, and some nature parks. Plenty to keep me busy on Monday.

At three o'clock Sunday afternoon, I climbed into the car, cranked the heated seat to high, and stretched out the best I could. Almost four hours later, we arrived at our hotel.

At dinner that night with one of my husband's coworkers and his wife, I posed the question - where would be some good places to go photograph? This can be a risky question to ask non-photographers. Chris suggested the Historical Center and Museum which was two stop signs down the road from our hotel. As soon as he said old buildings and cemetery, I knew that his suggestion could be taken seriously.

Shortly after eight o'clock Monday morning, I checked out of the hotel (Glen had already left with another colleague) and drove two stop signs down the road, crossed a country highway and found the Wood County Historical Center. Formerly, the Wood County Infirmary, i.e. county poor house. I was in heaven.

The Wood County Infirmary operated from 1869-1971. After 102 years of operation the Infirmary closed. It reopened in 1975 as a Museum. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The Infirmary Cemetery is the final resting place of over 400 Wood County residents. Not everybody buried here lived in the Infirmary. Residents too poor to afford burial in a public cemetery were also buried here. The county paid for a simple pine box and grave marker noted with a number. They do have records of who is buried here, but none that indict which number belongs to which name.

Two parks that I also visited while in Bowling Green were: Wintergarden Park and Simpson Garden Community Center. Both beautiful parks, but it was too hot and too sunny for any good photos. I am hoping to be invited back to Bowling Green so I can explore further.