Peering Past the Red Velvet Rope

While vacationing in the Hudson River Valley, my husband and I toured Kykuit, Rockefeller’s lavish summer home; Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s modest cottage; and the Hancock Shaker Community’s very plain dormitories.

Mindful of the red velvet ropes and little fences that kept us from exploring/trespassing, we craned our heads around doorways, peered into corners, and tried to imagine the lives lived there. Despite the tour guides’ colorful stories, sometimes it was hard to breathe life into those rooms. Occasionally, my mind drifted, and I entertained myself by imagining what a future tour guide would say about my home after I’ve achieved some unspecified (and as yet unattained) notoriety.

No doubt, future tourists leaning across the velvet rope blocking entrance to my office will say, “Ooooh, that’s where Ellen used to write! There’s the honey locust she used to look at while she wrote, and there’s the sad clematis on the too-big trellis—remember her blog about defensive landscaping?” 

The tour guide might add, “To preserve historical accuracy, we left the pile of mail on the loveseat. Family stories mention that she used to let it ‘age’ for up to two weeks before she dealt with it.” Visitors will chuckle and some of the more avid ones will lean in to snap photos of the mail pile.

“And over there—a see the cat bed on the radiator? Her cat, Pinky, kept her company on cold Minnesota afternoons. Maybe he was even her muse as she struggled to revise her blogs and essays.” The tourists will jostle each other to take pictures of the cat bed.

The guide will probably point out, “Some of the furniture is antique—like the Mission style oak desk. Supposedly Ellen refinished it when she first moved to Minnesota years before she moved here for good. It was the only desk she ever used.” One of the visitors will probably sigh in appreciation. “We believe that she might have been sitting in that beat-up office chair when she received the call about winning the MacArthur Genius Grant/Nobel Peace Prize/Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.” More clicking cameras and cell phones.

“Next, we come to the music room, where Ellen’s husband composed his opus . . . .” The tourists will dutifully shuffle across the hall to oooh and ah.

Advertisements

Capturing the Moment

Since getting my iPhone, I’ve begun taking tons of photos, especially when I’m vacationing. During the nine days I was in Kauai I took 361 photos—mostly of scenery and quirky objects, occasionally of my companions.

Near Kilauea lighthouse

near Kilauea lighthouse

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

Tiny shrine under banyan tree at Hindu monastery

That’s about 40 per day. Why not? It’s fun. Taking pictures has become a way of heightening the experience. Documenting and remembering it. But sometimes I wonder: when I’m focusing and framing shots, am I more in the moment or less?

There’s something acquisitive about taking pictures.

Click. There. Now I’ve got it. This moment and this place are mine. I can revisit them whenever I want. I’m hoarding a treasure of memories. At some future point, seeing this vista, cool object, or time with friends may be just the tonic I need.

Of course I've got a beachy sunset photo -- it's Hawaii!

Of course I’ve got a beachy sunset photo — it’s Hawaii!

Initially, I might share a handful of photos on Facebook. Snap a funny scene and text it to a friend. After I return from a trip, I fuss with the photos in Photoshop, cropping them or adjusting the lighting. It’s a second way of enjoying the sights. Sometimes I create screensavers. Once in a while I make a printed calendar.

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Surfboard fence in Hanalei

Having photos allows me to relive the good times. Except that after my first wave of enthusiasm, I rarely do.

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

Bird of paradise at Allerton McBryde Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least my photos are easy to store.

I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with storing my collection. I think of the albums and boxes of pictures my parents had. Some of them are precious—that’s our history. My three siblings and I lined up in front of the tulip garden at Easter. There we are sprawled in swimsuits on the dock at Lake James.

But the photos from when my parents were in Hawaii? I’m glad they had the experience, but the images mean very little to me. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the stories. Is there any reason to save those prints now that my parents are gone? Similarly, my Hawaii photos won’t mean anything to my kids either. They weren’t there.

Fortunately, my fascination with photography doesn’t require much effort or upkeep. As long as I have loads of gigabytes, digital photos are easy to keep.

There’s one picture I didn’t take in Kauai.

In Hanapepe, they have a Friday night art gallery crawl. At 6:30, it was dark except for a few streetlights and the lights from shops. The air was cooling but the breeze was still gentle. A dozen shops opened their doors and a handful of food trucks gathered. Several musicians performed here and there—folk music and traditional Hawaiian music.

An old black pickup truck was parked under a streetlight. The front of it was painted with orange and yellow flames. Hot pink bougainvillea bushes were planted in the truck bed and they bloomed lavishly. Alongside the truck, a woman in a lawn chair was making leis.

I really wanted to take that photo, but it seemed wrong. Did I have the right to the photo if I didn’t want to buy the lei? Probably didn’t matter. People must do it all the time. That truck is meant to attract attention. Specifically, tourists’ attention.

After a while, she got up and shook some flowers from the tree behind the truck. Had a cigarette. A friend of hers stopped by with a brown bag of food.

I let the moment pass. It was too dark for my phone’s camera. It wouldn’t have seen all the color and details my eyes registered during the 20 minutes that I sat on the curb across the street from her eating spicy chicken curry.

I appreciate both kinds of images—the photos because they can trigger a story and the remembered images that have become vivid because I found the words to turn them into stories.

Both bring wonderful experiences to mind.