on Surprises

Walking along the bluff at Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz, on a much needed gorgeously sunny day, the honking sounds of geese over head. Surely not. They must be ducks. But no; two Canada geese––heading south. But it is April; aren’t they supposed to be heading north? Along the path a man and a woman in bird watching garb: khaki pants, large shade hats, expensive binoculars with heavy duty shoulder and chest straps, warm and friendly. I ask them first if they might remind me of the name of the large whitish bird with black wing tips and a white band across the tail that was hunting by flying low over the marshland. Yes, they know: it is a Northern Harrier. Ah yes, now I remember the name. And then: about the two Canada geese we just saw flying south? Oh yes, it is a pair that has made their home here at Wilder Ranch. Apparently they knew a good thing when they flew over it. They no longer make the long commute.

I spent a bit of time later in the day admiring one of the geese who was floating in the small puddle pond on the beach I was napping on. Thought I might write about the geese somehow, didn’t know how. Then it dawned on me: yes, surprises. Many of my best discoveries as an artist (and in the rest of my life) have been surprises. I turn a corner and there is a bit of graffiti that begs to be photographed, or a bit of trash that is all twisty and rusted that begs to be taken home to be made into something. Or, there was the time after two years of trying to get a particular look while photographing water and being unsuccessful, I accidentally fell off my deck while documenting the re-building process of the deck, and the Polaroid camera in my hand fired an image of the sky (as I was falling) and gave me exactly the look I wanted for the water images I had been seeking. Silly me, thinking that I had to photograph water to get an image of water when all along what I was looking for was in the sky.

The more open we are to surprises, the more gifts come our way. How often I hear beginning writers get stuck on trying to know the end of their story, or poem, or whatever, rather than discovering the end. It takes a great deal of courage to enter into making work not knowing where it will end up. Often the work veers into territory that is uncomfortable, and often, the beginner, but also far too often the more experienced, artist, freezes up, or gets scared or just gets stubborn––”This is not going where I think it should.” ––and stops the process. The little surprises are the geese, or the bit of graffiti, or the treasure found in the junk store; they often come easily if we just pay attention. The big surprises can come easily and when they do they are a delight. But often, the big surprises scare the shit out of us and we run from them. “But I was heading North; why do I now find myself driving south?” Why indeed? and Why not?

Be brave. Stay open to yourself, to your work, to whatever the universe is going to offer up. Let yourself be surprised.