You know that oft-quoted line from John Lennon, about how life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans? These are wise words. I need to keep them in mind a lot more, or possibly even have a poster made of it (like, with a picture of cat playing with a ball of yarn and a thought bubble above his head showing a scratching post). You see, I have been planning for the future, pretty much daily, the entire time that I have been living in San Antonio. Some of this planning is necessary; especially in light of our upcoming move to Seattle. I like to think of this obsessive planning as doing my future self a favor. But what about my current self? I focus on everything but the present. I might even say I am uncomfortable with the present. I don’t know if it’s being born into a time and place with literally limitless options and endless distractions, but lately I tend to feel like there is always something more, or something different than whatever it is I am doing at that moment. First-world problems, right? Why am I incapable of giving myself a break and letting myself enjoy this singular time and place? Being present, meditating, living in the moment: these are things I’ve never been good at. I want to change: to overcome the anxiety that comes with being comfortable with me, as I am today, whenever today is.
As I said, I’m no good at meditation (restless, lack discipline, etc.), but there are other ways to achieve the same mindfulness of “now.” While I’m busy with any of these tasks, it is my goal to just focus on the one thing I am doing, and do it well.
1. Knitting. Getting off of the computer, and making something tangible, even if it’s just a bunch of scarves. The mind is still active, but pleasantly distracted. The hands are busy, so there’s not much else I feel like I could be doing. Who wants a scarf? I recently mastered stripes.
2. Walking, now that it’s not 100 degrees, is another good mind-clearing activity/exercise. But. I find myself feeling more and more like a local when I’m on the riverwalk: annoyed with slow-moving tourists and their strollers. Perhaps it’s a good exercise in patience, another virtue in which I lack.
3. Art projects are another way to focus my jumbled energies. I have been asking my boyfriend Peter to teach me some techniques. He pretty much says I can discover my own “visual language” through just making marks on the paper. I’ve never been drawn to the sketchpad like he has been, though. My right brain creativity is more connected with the verbal left brain. Which is why he and I have had, for years, the idea to do be a writer-illustrator team. We did try it a few times in the past, although I guess others have had the motivation to follow through before we did.
4. Photography. Not the “real” kind, that actual photographers do. Not the kind I used to do when I worked as a museum collections photographer in Madison. No, just me and my iPhone, out in the world. This device, that is always with me, has become the mode of documenting my life over the last year here in San Antonio. More than any activity, taking photos, by definition, puts me in the moment. I never really thought about what taking these photos means to me, until I read this last week on an inspiring blog I follow:
And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret. The only secret that has helped me consistently over all the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about. Something I hadn’t known was important will leap out and hover there in front of me, saying I am— I am the best moment of the day. I noticed two people were writing down what I was saying. Often, I went on, it’s a moment when you’re waiting for someone, or you’re driving somewhere, or maybe you’re just walking across a parking lot and admiring the oil stains and the dribbled tar patterns. One time it was when I was driving past a certain house that was screaming with sunlitness on its white clapboards, and then I plunged through tree shadows that splashed and splayed across the windshield. I thought, Ah, of course— I’d forgotten. You, windshield shadows, you are the best moment of the day. “And that’s my secret, such as it is,” I said.
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
Even though this excerpt is about poetry, it can really be about any creative pursuit: making art out of the inspiration that is received from an ordinary day. This makes sense to me: I do use these photos to capture something fleeting from my day; maybe what I choose to capture even is the best part of my day. Having a camera with me all the time now does allow for the creation of a legitimate photographic journal. But more than the journal, the poetry, whatever, the thing that holds me in the moment is the act of capturing the scene. What am I drawn to photograph? It could be a pretty vista, or someone who is with me, but often it is just something I see that I like and can’t explain it anymore than that. It’s the way the evening light hits an industrial building. The way a flowering plant looks extra beautiful against a gray wall. It’s the small things that often make up the best moment of the day; we all know this. As I sit here, always making plans for the future, this is what is happening is right now, whatever that happens to be.
And, the best part of having a documentary device always with me? Because the iPhone is actually a tiny computer, these photos can be shared through the magic of Instagram. The act of taking a photo, formalizing it as a portrait through the filters, and then sharing it: it’s a form of sharing visual poetry, isn’t it? We’re social. We want to share. I like Twitter, but sometimes the endless links and hashtags and words become too much to process. Instagram is the visual Twitter, a way to say “I was here” or to express a visual ideal.
Which brings me to this, because my brain is always jumping around: I have worked in several museums, and I can’t think of a better use of social media than Instagram for cultural institutions. First off, there are suddenly a LOT of people using it. The potential audience is huge. As museums become more and more social entities, there should be more of them on Instagram. And the museums who already use it could be using it even more creatively.
Museums are visual institutions and Instagram is a visual social resource: they are a natural fit. Using the app should be a main component of a good social media and marketing plan. Of course we know the photographic quality is not archival. That’s what museum photographers and archives are for. This is about social engagement and a moment in time. It should be a fun and irreverent way to engage visitors and followers and to start discussions.
The best ways for museums to use Instagram? Show off the collections. Give us behind-the-scenes shots. Use it to promote exhibits and events. Ask questions, start an artistic dialogue. Keep a consistent visual language, to use Peter’s phrase. Use it once or twice every day.
Here’s a list of some creative arts organizations and artists to follow. Some of my personal favorite photographers that I follow? Yvette Inufio, Jasmine Fitzwilliam, Andy Spade, and Marie, in addition to lots of others. And, if you want to see some of my favorite daily moments, follow me. When we move from San Antonio, I am going to be really glad I have a visual record of this past year.