I have a distinct memory of being in the first grade and feeling extremely competitive about learning a children’s song that bears the same title as its opening line: “Hi, My Name is Joe.” The song now strikes me as ridiculous, but I am certain (hopeful) it served a pedagogic purpose. It involves a man who works in a button (button!) factory and is asked by his boss to take on more and more work. (Perhaps this song is meant to serve as a warning).
In any event, I remember being so proud that I learned (memorized) the song before anyone else in the class and then was selected to lead the class in chanting this little doozy. Thirty years later I am still competing – with who? for what? Myself, I guess, though lately I feel like all versions of me keep losing the competition. How to get back in the race? No matter, I’ll find the starting line again. I look for it everyone morning when I get up with a head full of tasks to accomplish, most of which I enjoy (yoga) and some of which (housework) must be done.
This morning I managed to get up shortly after 6:00. When I realized that the temperature was an amazing 45 degrees and the lake’s surface was not wind-whipped, I made a dash for my Sun Dolphin kayak, clutching my cherished Nikon Coolpix 900, a nifty digital camera that I shoot these photos with. I had less than an hour before I absolutely had to get ready for work (thankfully my button factory boss is forgiving) and so without too much dallying (I am an excessive dallier, I have learned) I headed for the opposite side of the inlet to look for the ancient ones (my snapping turtle friends).
Even as I was paddling across the short expanse, ready to grab my camera, ready to find THE BIG ONE, I was telling myself to calm down, enjoy the paddle, enjoy the sun (so little seen and felt lately). I saw four or five painted turtles sliding along a few inches under the surface, easily visible because water quality on our lake is excellent right now. Not finding any snappers, and knowing the clock ticks fastest when I least want it to, I stashed my camera back in its case and paddled another hundred yards into the inlet, hoping for loons, or the beaver. I saw neither. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not even see the osprey or the eagles that are so often looking for a meal in the early morning. No mallards, no geese. Where have they gone?
In the midst of my search for snappers, I had the good sense to take note of what was in front of me – the red-winged blackbirds. I watched one male defend his territory, chasing off two other red-wings, and then I watched him sing, preen, sing, then preen again. Like chickadees, red-winged blackbirds are very common in my yard, so it is all too easy to take them for granted, to look for something “better” to photograph. This makes the surprise of “discovering” them all the more humbling. How often the very thing that we frantically search for, that we are certain we must have, reveals itself to be something else entirely.
Usually when I go out with my camera I try to go without an agenda, with no expectations. I try to stay open to what presents itself, be grateful that it is there, and then capture quality images. Interestingly, to me at least, is my inability to apply this same philosophy to other aspects of my life. Perhaps my approach to nature-watching explains why I am so happy when I do it. No rules, no contests, no pre-conceived notions about what must occur for me to be happy. This isn’t to say that we should not have standards, and goals, and expectations about life, work, marriage, whatever. But how to strike a balance between expecting, creating, controlling – and then simply receiving what IS as what is, and doing so gracefully?
Women, especially, are taught not to hear their own voices, not to trust their instincts. Children raised in difficult circumstances learn the same. Don’t trust what you see. Don’t trust what you hear. Reality is fluid, malleable, revisable. Yet it is so important to know when a shot isn’t working, to accept that a turtle probably really won’t reveal itself in the next fifteen minutes, to admit that the button factory job will remain horrendously dull. Only when we can listen to our voices and trust what we are hearing can we decide to paddle in a different direction. Without this knowledge we compete with darkness, and that is a competition we will lose every time.