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September 2012

Attending to Wonder: The Photography of Robert Adams

Ex_adams"If we come across innocence, beauty, caring, joy, or courage, even in lost places, are we not obliged to acknowledge them in defiance of ironists?" 

(Robert Adams, Photographer)

It is always a pleasure to discover an artist --- in this case a photographer --- who enjoys finding what is true, beautiful, and good in the world, who overcomes cynicism to shine light on simply what is there for all to see.  Robert Adams does that without sentimentality, well aware of what is problematic in the world and yet hopeful.  Not many of us can make it to the exhibition of his work at Yale University, and yet we can still peruse the gallery online, each series prefaced by a text profound in its simplicity, each a provocation to wonder.

I found the most arresting of these photos those of mothers and children in a suburban mall parking lot, circa 1980, entitled Our Parents, Our Children.  Childrens' faces have a way of disarming our disinterested gaze, the face we often put on in regard to life.  If you let your eyes settle on a child's face, you begin to melt a little inside, see a soul of wonder.  Against a barren, paved backdrop, next to a pitiful tree in a planter, a mother holds her baby close, communicating love and concern and hope in a sterile landscape. One father (or, perhaps, grandfather) stands his baby girl on the hood of the car and appears to be letting her jump into his arms.  Sometimes Adams takes the shot from the child's perspective, and we see how large the world is from a place only three feet off the ground, how brave children must be to walk about in a world of giants and often insurmountable obstacles.

Adams is best when he asks questions, and in the text accompanying this series he asks:  "Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?" Of course, we would say.  Christians of all people have reason to say this, as they see the operation of common grace in the world.  And yet it's easy to miss it.

It's true that the photographs, whether landscapes natural or man-altered, often record what Adams recognizes as "a separation form ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love," an unstated testimony to the dissonannce of The Fall.  The late Francis Schaeffer in an article that serendiptitously appeared about the same time many of these photographs were taken, put a theological name on the point made by Adams, that The Fall's ripple effects were separations --- first between man and God, then between man and woman, and then between man and nature and between man and himself.  Adams makes the point and yet points beyond to faith, hope, and love, even if he does not name the source of that trilogy.

Robert Adams is saddend no doubt by the lost of first-growth forest to clear-cutting and loss of lives to war, and no doubt much more, and yet neither his photos nor the associated texts rail against The Man or bitterly prophesy of impending doom, as might a man in his twilight years.  He doesn't dwell on our loss but reminds us of what we are gifted, of that for which we can be thankful.  His photos are a reminder to me that there is beauty all around --- in a patch of suburban lawn, a mall parking lot, an urban allyway, and even the empty buildings of a decaying urban center.  To a great extent it is what you choose to see or how you choose to see.  But not only that:  we also have the promise that Christ is at work reconciling all of creation to himself, with the hope that all of it will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

Adams leaves us with this profound last statement, one that still resonates with me.  He said that

Stanley Elkin suggested that “all books are the Book of Job,” and in general he was right. Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders—the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

And so, when I am outwalking, whether in a suburban neighborhood or an alley in New York, I know my task: to attend to what is in front of me, to remember who I am, to see in dust the promise of life. If you want to better see, I commend the photography of Robert Adams to you.

(The photo above is from the gallery of photographs of Robert Adams exhibited at Yale.  This one, from Colorado Springs, 1968, suggests the impersonal tract housing that multiplied in the post-war boom.  A lone figure, no doubt a housewife, seems to be looking out the window, and you want to suggest what she might be thinking: Is it the dispair of "is this all there is" or the the joy of watching children play in the backyard? Or is it both?)



Singing in the Rain

Part of the human task is to discern how our lives are a part of a larger story, to trace the outlines of the plot, to envision a meta- and mega-narrative.

Yes, but it is raining, and I need a nap.  That's just too deep and too abstract to think about right now.

Outside my window, a lone bird, perhaps a chickadee, chirps.  He or she is not thinking of meta-narratives but just living the story, though the Psalmist does say that "The eyes of all look to you,/and you give them their food in due season./ You open your hand;/you satisfy the desire of every living thing" (Ps. 145:15-16).  Even a lone bird has desires, has expectations, is dependent on One.  Even a bird (I can't help myself) is a part of something bigger than the next worm.

I need a nap because I was awake at all hours last night listening to rain and thunder, and then more rain and thunder.  It was a night of naps punctuated by rumblings, and with the window open I could hear it all, hear the drama build, the plot thicken, until that one final moment when in one huge thunderous boom it passed.  One more page in an unfolding story, maybe no more than one more word in a very lengthy story, inexplicable in its interlocking subplots, full of tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, and yet it moves on.

I don't take it for granted that I can think this way, that I can conceive a universal in all the disparate particulars of life: cars that need repair, bills to pay, sickness, washing dishes, getting up and lying down, meeting someone and not meeting many others.  And on that last point I like to tell the story of the time I was dining an a cafe in Tucson, Arizona and, on excusing myself from the table, crossed paths with a server who called out my name, first and last.  He was in my fourth grade class, not even a good friend, and I had not seen him in 34 years.  Amazing.  He said "You look the same."  He lied.  But the point is that I wonder what that plot detail was about, of what story that was a part.  Maybe it happened only so I could tell you about it, to marvel at the (I believe) divine providences that occur every day.

That's the kind of thing that rises to the surface when you lie awake at night, when the clock reads 3:39 and you listen to its hum, when you are hyper-attuned to the settling of the house, like some ancient creature sinking back down on its haunches long after its occupants have retired.  At least long after most have retired.

I don't know what much of it means, but I can trace a central theme in this huge story, the theme of grace, of a Writer who regards with kindness every character He creates, who cares even about one lone chickadee singing in the rain.  The Psalmist said it: "The Lord is faithful in all his words, kind in all his works" (Ps. 145:13).  To love what you make is one thing, but to be kind. . . that's something else.  What author is as tender with all his creations as this One?  What author, much to the grief it causes him, allows his creatures to participate in writing their stories, heaping injury on themselves and others at times?  What author writes himself into the story, becomes like his creations, honors them and dies to Himself for them?  If I don't like the way a story is turning out, I put it down, even throw it away.  He didn't.  He honors his promise that he would be faithful to his people, and though many of his creations are written out of the story there are those who stay to the end, who are kept to the end.

It sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? And yet if the Author of Life wants to write a story that asks us to believe that there is Someone outside the Story who is superintending it, certainly he can.  So many people live disconnected, disjointed lives of seeming randomness, passing from scene to scene with no sense that there is any larger meaning.  No author, no meaning.  No plot, no purpose.  And so it is a gift to find yourself in the biblical narrative.

I am Adam, created and fallen.  I am Israel, distracted and scattered, gathered and redeemed. I am Paul, a blind man given sight.  I am the paralytic of heart, given the legs of faith.  I am John of Patmos, seeing things I don't fully understand.

I am a lone chickadee, singing in the rain.  Expecting.  Hoping.  Waiting.  Singing.


Not Everyone's Talking: A Review of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," by Susan Cain

QuietIn the near future I will be leaving my family for a week, part of a team of evaluators who will go to an office much like our own and assess its weaknesses and strengths.  It'll be the most difficult thing I will have done as a part of my job for the last year --- more difficult than any thorny legal problem I have had to unravel, brief to write, or conflict to resolve.  And I volunteered for it.

The challenge of the week ahead is that it involves leaving a familiar setting, meeting many new people, and engaging them in conversation.  It would be difficult enough if the day ended at 5:30.  I could eat dinner alone, perhaps, and then retire to a quiet evening and reading in my hotel room.  But there will be evening meetings and even obligatory dinners.  It'll be exhausting.

I am a classic introvert.  And as Susan Cain informs me in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, something like one-third of you are like me.  No.  Make that two-thirds of you, as if you are reading this blog post you are probably more oriented toward reading than socializing.  To top it off, we live in a culture that prizes the extrovert ideal, that respects people who "put themselves out there," who "speak up."  As Cain points out, even in the Christian evangelical community, extroversion seems to be the ideal, with people urged to connect, participate, and communicate, to do more and be with people more.  That's not me.

I never remember asking a question in class during all my years of education.  I preferred to listen.  It always seemed to me that if you waited long enough that all your questions would be either answered by the instructor or asked by another student, a talker.  In my adult years I have been asked to be on the Boards of several non-profits.  I don't know why they ask me.  I rarely say anything.  I'm happy to work on a project, to head a committee, to speak to you one-on-one, but I can't think of a thing to say in Board meetings --- at least not before someone else has said it.  I'm still processing what has been said, while the conversation moves on.

I'm OK with all this, almost.  Being an introvert can be a little bit like being on the sidelines at times.  So much is happening, so much swimming by, so much talking going on.  You sense that maybe you're missing something, even if you can't quite figure out what it is you're missing.  And yet on the sidelines you can see the stream of life a bit better, step outside and listen to what is happening.  Think.  Ponder.  Reflect. 

In all the people that Cain interviewed for her book, one, a seven-year old girl named Isabel, brought home to me the simple pleasure of, well. . . being me.  Isabel's mother was concerned when in second grade she preferred to come home after school and read, asked her mother to consult with her before arranging play dates, and often played by herself on the playground.  Her mother worried about her.  Asked about why she preferred being at home, Isabel (apparently very articulate for her age) said exactly this:  "I need a break after school.  School is hard because a lot of people are in the room, so you get tired.  I freak out if my Mom plans a play date without telling me, because I don't want to hurt my friends' feelings.  But I'd rather stay home.  At a friend's house you have to do the things other people want to do.  I like hanging out with my Mom after school because I can learn from her.  She's been alive longer than me.  We have thoughtful conversations.  I like having thoughtful conversations because they make people happy."   That's what it feels like sometimes: like there are too many people in the room.  And yet I am envious at times of those who are so comfortable with the many, who, indeed, are supercharged by the crowd.

Cain's well-researched book manages to be an empowering one for introverts without slamming extroverts.  She addresses the nature-nurture debate that shows up here as well as in so many other discussions of personality traits, summarizing studies of "high-reactive" infants (those that have more profound reactions to new stimuli) to teenagers who retreat to libraries or bathroom stalls at lunch.  And she doesn't provide an apology for  using introversion as an excuse for acting anti-social or failing to rise to the social occasion when circumstances dictate --- as when love or passion for a cause or need dictate.  One of the most fascinating examples of this temperament-bending is of a well-loved, affable college professor who takes on an extroverted self during the day and retreats to his home and books on the evening and weekends.   Or the spouse who agrees to host social gatherings twice a month out of love for her extroverted spouse who relishes such opportunities to connect with people.  While our general disposition may be fixed, we are somewhat malleable people, able to act outside our comfort zone within limits.  Isn't this as it should be?  Will not God supply what we need when we need it?  Did he not supply a timid Moses with an outspoken Aaron?

I volunteered for this assignment because it forces me to continue to learn how to function well as an introvert in a setting that forces social interaction.  There will be a lot of people in the room, and a lot of chatter.  I would rather be home.  Already, I miss home.  And yet I might, like Isabel, have a "thoughtful conversation" somewhere along the line.  I wouldn't want to miss that.  Every time I do something like this I become a little more comfortable being me and yet relating to people around me.  Nevertheless, you can bet that somewhere, in the midst of all the buzz, I will steal some solitude.  I will still be me.

If you're an introvert, read this book to understand yourself better and learn how to tap into the gift of temperament you've been given, to be more of who God intended you to be.  If you're an extrovert, read it to understand the other one-third of the world (which likely includes co-workers and for some, a spouse).  It manages to help without being a self-help manual.  It illuminates without blinding. Whatever your temperament, in the end, you may agree that we could all use a little Quiet.