Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Walking the Middle Way

A few years back I took a couple of classes in the art of pastel from a wonderful woman named Gillian Bull, who has since become my friend. I haven't much talent for drawing, so the results of my labors in the class were mixed, but I learned one VERY important lesson in her class: any work of art, to be successful, needs some strong darks and some strong lights.

My photography made some significant shifts after that class, but I was still working overtime to lighten my darks and find definition in my whites when a neighbor convinced me to attend a weekend seminar given by the folks at Washington Courage and Renewal, a Parker Palmer-based organization whose purpose is to revitalize and inspire those who work in service professions, especially education and the ministry.

It was an incredible weekend, and lots of good awareness came out of it, but at one point we were presented with a roomful of images and invited to walk around, see which one spoke to us, and then to write about what the particular image had to say. There were several images that drew me, but the one that chose me was a black and white image of a dove flying out a window above a stairwell. Outside was very bright, so above the stairs was greatly over-exposed. You could kind of see the banister, and then below the stairs was very dark.

So there were almost no grays at all in the picture, and I think if I had shot it I would have been desperately trying to bring out what was below the stairs or to find some texture in the over-exposed wall. What struck me was that the image had a lot of impact without my doing any of that to it. I was impressed by the self-acceptance of the photographer -- because he didn't seem to mind that some sections were over-exposed and some under-exposed.

I was also struck by the impact of the mystery inherent in those strong darks and lights. The fact that you couldn't tell what might be under the stairs or on the wall actually drew you into the picture; it was engaging. And so it was that I learned, not only the importance of dark and light in an image, but also the value of mystery in an image.

What seems to be a bit harder to learn is that dark and light and mystery have value in a life as well. Mystery, in particular, can really frustrate me. I've come to accept that there are dark times; to step slightly apart from them and watch to see what learning there might be. But mystery, not-knowing, is still quite frustrating: I'm always impatient for what might come next, what might be revealed. Ambiguity is fun and even thrilling, but mystery is still a challenge, more a problem to be solved than a situation to be accepted. And I find, in relationships, I am always reluctant to keep a part of myself veiled: I'm pretty much out there, for all the world to see, even trying to clarify any parts that might confuse someone.

Which is probably why I love shooting in fog as much as I do. Despite all the training and learning from Gillian and from the Courage and Renewal folks, I still tend to limit my darks and lights; still prefer -- even delight in -- the gray areas of life. Which may explain why I love it when Richard Rohr talks about non-duality in terms of balancing good and evil and makes that statement about "holding it all and eliminating nothing."

I know we need darks and lights. But I seem to be more interested in transforming them, in finding the dark places in the light and the light places in the dark, and less interested in emphasizing the difference between the two or creating drama -- more dark and more light -- to give more contrast to my images -- or to my life.

Which makes me think of something my friend Barbara wrote in a recent email:

"I am an Episcopalian through and through - shades of grey and I go hand and hand through life."

... and I'm thinking, too, of that wonderful old hymn:

"In Him there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike..."

When I was studying Episcopal History at our Diocesan School of Theology I learned to call that curiously Episcopalian approach, the determination to find the balance between and not label as bad or good, the "via media" -- the Middle Way. And though I've seen a lot of dark and light since then -- especially in my Episcopal world -- I guess that's still the path I walk. Some things just don't seem to change!

1 comment:

Maureen said...

The road leading to who knows where, that shroud of mist rising, the stages of loss among the trees, the stillness that seems papable. . . I do like this image.

I like how you connected all the pieces in this post.

And I smiled at those quotes about Episcopalians, of which I'm one, though not from cradle born. I've been told that Episcopalians don't like to rock the boat, don't want ever to make anyone feel bad. . . that made me smile, too. The person telling me that just had no idea! Curious, I guess, that I choose to walk among those who walk "via media" when I can so surely run hot and cold, though not at the same time.