Very few things fascinate me as much as when I observe a stranger in a state of utter contemplation. Can’t quite say why, but I assume it has to do with what such scenes do to the power of the imagination. Contemplation is perhaps the ultimate form of freedom, as it gives birth to who we truly are, stripped from the the cacophony of sounds that demand so much of our senses, but deliver so little to out souls. Of course, many would argue that such musings are nothing but signs of mental illness on the part of photo blogger, but I have to believe that there’s something to it. When we loose ourselves into ourselves, something transformative seems to happen. We connect dots, we make sense of us, and above all, we come to know the self in ways that are so deeply personal that it is impossible for others to see. That is precisely what this simple scene along the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris reminded me of. Silence, contemplation, and a journey that only eyes that had seen so much more than mine, could see. No doubt that scenes like these led Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous British romantic poet from the early 19th Century, to perfectly capture the deep feelings generated by such moments:
There is eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone.
But why do we allow so very few of these moments in our lives? Fear of what we may discover? Or could it be that they would require us to give less to others as we pursue more of ourselves? I’m sure that there are as many explanations are there are pebbles on a beach. Such a pity, for I’m sure we could all benefit from heeding Shelly’s wise advice to “… awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture…”
Remember the fun days of summers from your youth? Well, they’re still there, even if these days we are mainly occupied with work, achievement, and all sorts of other important things. However, after watching this summer youth program along the Potomac River yesterday, I started to think about a conversation I once had with my college professor brother. Having asked him why he had chosen to remain a college professor for life in the place he did instead of entering the corporate world to make the big bucks, his reply kind of took me by surprise. He pointed out that while he recognized the earning potential of those who toil at their work all year round, he had made the conscious decision to choose a career where he “had not worked a single summer since his high school graduation.” Summers were his to engage in all sorts of personal projects and activities, and that long-term freedom must certainly have a value that cannot be measured by dollars alone. Fun? Summers off? Freedom? You can only imagine what was going through the head of yours truly, a never-summer-off dedicated public servant who spent most of his professional life in the United States Marine Corps. So here I was with my camera at the Washington Sailing Marina recording how much fun summers can be, thinking about how few of them we will have in our lifetimes, and realizing that my brother was a genius for the choices he made. It took a bunch of laughing, giggling, sun-drenched youth fumbling over sails and choppy waters to remind me of that.
I am convinced that driving along country backroads is a sure way of discovering all sorts of photographic wonders. Not that this sort of observation will lead to a Nobel Prize any time soon, but rather that in today’s busy world, driving for pleasure has become a rarity for too many people. If you are old enough to remember the family Sunday ride, you’ll know what I mean. It was all about the ride, and about looking around. A visual journey where time and speed were always subordinated to the thrill of discovering something new (or different) along the way. The rides were fun, unstructured, and rewarding. Sort of like sitting behind a glass window in a coffee shop watching the world go by, but with wheels. These photos were the product of one such ride along the Virginia countryside. Amazing what you find when your eyes insist on seeing.
The weather report is forecasting a very cold, wintry day for tomorrow, but today the weather could not have been any better. A bright, sunny day with temperatures around 50 degrees made for a good day to walk the streets with your camera. The strange thing was that I found myself photographing once again around the Georgetown waterfront as if pulled by some cosmic magnetic force beyond my control. And you know what? There may be something to this after all, because if there’s a place that can exert such force on mere mortals, it must be the lollypop-shaped Georgetown Labyrinth. Never mind that on this day its primary purpose seemed to be to serve as a racetrack for a father and son combo trying out their dueling remotely controlled cars. No, I have to believe that this divine center of gravity in a city mostly known for governmental witchcraft and cutthroat politicians exists to elevate the human spirit above its mundane nature. Yes, that’s got to be it. The Labyrinth must emanate some sort of magnetic field that attracts imperfect souls to its bosom, to the circle of self-discovery and introspection in order to cleanse the spiritual attic of our lives of all its cobwebs and imperfections. There is no doubt that this is the reason why I found myself on this very spot today, looking at the skies from the center of the circle waiting for something great to happen. Well, I didn’t have to wait long for it. First, there was a swoosh, then another, then a rattling noise by my feet that I interpreted as my soul about to be elevated above the clouds to a higher level of existence. And then, there they were, circling around me at high speed, but never to be confused with stars and magnetic forces of any kind: two noisy electric cars moving at high speed in a nausea-inducing crisscross pattern, with father and son busily punching at their control boxes as if they were commanding a nuclear submarine. My spirit safely tucked where it had been all along, I made it out of the Labyrinth before the local Nascar duo had a chance to tromp all over it. I knew it; this place exists for a purpose, and it may well have to do with the bonding between a father and his son.
I’m always amazed at how much I have yet to see in this world. Sure, I move around a lot and seem to suffer from some incurable travel compulsion, but no matter how much I experience through travel, there always seems to be much more out there to see and photograph. What’s more, even the places I’ve visited so many times in the past seem to have a surprising way of revealing something new all the time. Case in point: the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have walked these grounds with my camera, but I hate to admit that until a few days ago, I had never gone inside the Church itself. This was not because of a lack of curiosity, mind you. In fact, the more I walked by, the more I kept telling myself that I had to try to sneak in with my camera someday. Little did I know that when services are not being conducted, everyone is more than welcomed to come in and take as many photographs as your memory cards can hold.
But what makes a visit to Christ Church even more rewarding is the incredible historical information provided to visitors by local volunteers. Walk in when there are no other visitors around and you may catch one of these volunteer quietly sitting in President George Washington’s family box pew waiting to enlighten you about the history of this magnificent building. And yes, just like the local historian, you too will be able to spend some time inside the Church’s two most famous pews: the one used by President’s Washington’s family and the one used by Robert E. Lee’s family many years later. And just in case you begin to wonder about your exact geographical location, the local guide will be nice enough to remind you that your feet are now well planted in “the south.” I guess it is always important not to miss any of those significant historical details. After about twenty minutes, myself and the visitors from Siberia wrapped up our visit. Not sure where they went, but my compass unmistakably showed I was headed to “the north.” And that was OK with me.
This was not the photograph I had in mind for today’s blog, but a recent encounter with my dentist (bear with me on this one) kind of made me think about people falling in love and the crazy things they do when they are in love. Not that there is any love involved in my visits to my dentist, far from it. What happened that got me thinking was his reaction to my comment on a story he had just narrated to me. You see, he was sort of curious as to why one of his dentist friends who recently got married had decided to sell his practice and move to Spain with his new bride. You have to understand that in Northern Virginia, leaving a lucrative job to experiment with a “less certain” lifestyle is tantamount to committing professional harakiri on a public square. Not kosher, to say the least. But this unnamed dentist apparently did just that, and off to the land of Cervantes and Miguel de Unamuno he went.
When I was able to talk again (you’ve been to the dentist, so you know what I’m talking about), I told my dentist the only thing that came to mind: “Maybe he was in love.” The reaction and scoffing sound that came out of my dentist kind of took me by surprise, but I did understand the “Yeah, right” comment that accompanied them. As I sat there trying to dissect the meaning of his reaction, I could only think of the words of the great Don Juan de Marco played by Johnny Depp in the romantic comedy: “What is this thing that happens with age? Why does everyone want to pervert love and, suck it bone dry of all its glory? Why do you bother to call it love anymore?” I definitely need to recommend this movie to my dentist.
Talking about a change of scenery. No sooner did I return from discovering parts of Eastern Europe that I found myself at the shores of the Potomac River in Maryland watching Dragon Boat races. Sure, it’s not the Danube, but what can you say; it’s water, and if you can put a boat on it, then you can certainly have a race. Ever heard of Dragon Boat Racing? I must admit that until a few days ago, this form of competition was a foreign to me as what’s located on the other side of the moon. And from the looks of it, I was definitely missing on something. This Dragon Boat racing is serious stuff, with teams all over the country competing for a chance to go to what I was told, would be the world championships in Italy sometime next year. Italy? It’s already sounding interesting to this humble traveler.
After reading on the web that this regional competition was to take place at Maryland’s elegant National Harbor development, I simply had to go check it out. Since the event description had the word race, I sort of expected a little competition to take place. To be perfectly honest, and considering that we live in a city where underwear races and national pillow fights take place right under President Lincoln’s stony gaze, I was sort of expecting another “fun” event to help mark the dwindling days of summer. What I saw could not have been more different. Early morning group calisthenics, groups of people rhythmically air-rowing with the kind of facial expressions that reminded me of Mike Tyson, corporate teams, and a team consisting of visually-impaired folks that was being assisted to their boat, but who looked like they were there to kick some you know what. And while these folks were seriously pumped-up for competition, they were also some of the nicest people I’ve met in a while (could it be because I wasn’t competing against them?). So here I am, fresh from the cafes of Vienna and Krakow and now becoming a Dragon Boat racing closet expert. Well, not quite, but I surely had a great time meeting these folks and watching the regatta; and who knows, maybe I’ll check out some of their future races. Did I hear someone mention Italy?
Every year I tell myself that I have seen enough 4th of July celebrations to last a lifetime, but every year I keep returning as if in a pilgrimage to enjoy just one more. I can’t help it. Sure, it would be a lot more comfortable to stay home and watch these celebrations on TV, but no matter how much I sometimes get tempted to do just that, I just can’t seem to fathom being idle on a day like this. Too much happening out there. Marching bands, dancing groups of all kinds, ceremonial guards, and even pimped automobiles. It’s all out there amongst the thousands of people who show up in Washington, DC to celebrate our Nation’s independence. Frankly, our Nation’s capital is one of the best places to be at during this long weekend, if anything to actually witness locals acknowledging other human beings. That’s right, even the most hardened local bureaucrats seem to show a softer, human side during this time of the year. But more than that, if you drop by you’ll be amongst some of the proudest Americans you’ll encounter anywhere. The kind of American President Ronald Reagan had in mind when he uttered some of his most famous lines: “Our country is a special place, because we Americans have always been sustained, through good times and bad, by a noble vision — a vision not only of what the world around us is today, but what we as a free people can make it be tomorrow.” Well said, Mr. President.