I’m still obsessed with water and trees – can’t get enough of them, and even I thought I’d be getting tired of them by now. Recently, I came across a possible explanation for this, which lies in the idea of fractals. Fractals, put simply, are complex and never-ending patterns that repeat themselves over different scales – if you’d like a beautifully simple, illustrated, one-page explanation of them, go here.
There are two sorts of fractals – the mathematical and the natural kinds The mathematical kind, which are pretty to look at but which I’m certainly not capable of explaining adequately, are created by calculating a simple equation thousands of times and feeding the equation back to itself in a never-ending feedback loop. The natural kind don’t need any understanding of mathematics to appreciate and can be seen all around us – you can find them in the branching patterns of trees, clouds, lightning, snowflakes, canyons, and river confluences, or in spiral forms such as seashells, hurricanes and galaxies. Basically, the building blocks of natural things are fractal patterns and the human body is no exception – our lungs, blood vessels, brains, kidneys, and so on all display fractal patterns, and even the receptor molecules on viruses and bacteria are fractal in design.
Perhaps because of this, we like to look at fractal patterns and find them aesthetically pleasing. Richard Taylor of Oregon University, who is working on developing artificial retinal implants to bring back lost sight, compares the way the camera ‘sees’ with the way the eye sees. The eye only sees clearly what’s directly in front of it, with peripheral vision being much fuzzier, and so we have to move our eyes continually, scanning small areas, in order to ensure that the area of interest to us falls directly on the part of the eye with the sharpest vision – the pin-sized fovea. In short, the natural movement of our eyes is fractal. In contrast to this, a camera captures everything in uniform detail all over the picture plane. If someone was given a retinal implant that was based on how a camera works, they would not only be overwhelmed with visual data, they would also see – in Taylor’s words – ‘a world devoid of stress-reducing beauty’.
Almost certainly because we’re ‘made’ of fractals, it turns out that they have a strongly stress-relieving effect on us and looking at mid-range (don’t ask!) fractals can reduce stress by up to 60%. It’s been known for a while, for example, that people with trees outside their hospital windows heal more quickly than those without, but nobody really knew why. One explanation lies in fractals. A lot of art and architecture also forms fractal patterns, notably Gothic and Baroque architecture and the paintings of Jackson Pollock, De Kooning, Hokusai, and Escher. They’re also found in African designs, Hindu temples and, indeed, all sorts of other places where you might find satisfying and soothing design elements.
So it seems thatmy fascination with water patterns and tree branches almost certainly has a lot to do with their fractal construction and without my being conscious of it, taking these kinds of pictures probably does a lot to de-stress me. Hopefully, they do something to de-stress whoever looks at them as well. Here are a few very recent images displaying the fractal patterns of winter tree branches, both on their own and reflected in water.
If you want to know more about fractals and how they affect us………
I’ve never been good at fitting myself into a category or labelling what I do. Unfortunately this makes life a bit difficult sometimes when people ask – as they often do – ‘what sort of photography do you do, then?’. It’s usually easier to say what kind I don’t do – portraits, weddings, babies, traditional landscape – but that only takes me so far. To some extent I’ve adopted ‘contemplative photography’ or ‘mindful photography’ as my label, but as always, I have trouble fitting myself comfortably into even these particular categories. All I can say is that this fits me better than anything else does.
Some time ago I ran a weekly ‘miksang Monday’ slot, where I posted one photo a week that showed a mindful approach. I hesitated over using the word miksang, for reasons that I’ll go into in a bit, but the nicely alliterative sound of it won out and in the end I went with it. ‘Contemplative’ simply doesn’t trip off the tongue in the way that ‘miksang’ does, and at the time I hadn’t thought of mindful as a term to apply to photography (annoying – mindful Monday would have worked well). But anyway, ‘miksang Monday’ was what I went for even though I knew using the term ‘miksang’ was likely to leave me open to accusations of the image ‘not being Miksang’.
Before I start offering my thoughts on these things, it might help to define ‘contemplative/mindful’ and ‘miksang’ as they apply to photography. As contemplative and mindful photography are very similar, I’ll use the terms interchangeably – ‘mindful’ is a more recent take on what has been known for a while as contemplative photography. The origins of contemplative photography as a concept are not clear, and as it refers primarily to a particular approach to the making of photographs, it’s certainly true that people were practising contemplative photography long before the term had ever been heard of. Two early proponents of it – those who articulated its core ideas, although they may not have referred to it by this name, were Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author and photographer, and Minor White, a major figure in American photographic education, both practising before and around mid-century. Writings and quotations from many other major figures throughout the history of photography also strongly suggest that many of them were applying the same principles, whether or not they were aware of it..
Contemplative, or mindful, photography is largely about learning to see, without preconceptions or judgements, and because this entails a certain meditative letting go and opening up, it has become linked with Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophies, all of which encourage these things as a general approach to life. Miksang is Tibetan for ‘good eye’ and has come to mean a contemplative approach to photography which is loosely based on certain Buddhist ideas. Really, the two are pretty much the same, but Miksang (note the capital ‘M’) was inspired specifically by the teachings on perception and expression of the Tibetan Meditation Master, Chögyam Trungpa. These are now taught by the Miksang Institute, who use the capital ‘M’ to differentiate themselves. ‘Contemplative’ photography is a more generic term that hasn’t – as far as I know – been adopted by any particular organisation and therefore has no-one to ‘police’ it.
I use this term advisedly, because I was a little shocked when I joined a Facebook Miksang photography group. Suddenly, there seemed to be a lot of rules about what did and didn’t come under the title of Miksang, and people were being criticised for posting photos that weren’t deemed to be properly ‘miksang’. It was implied by one or two people that it wasn’t possible to do miksang photography without having been on a training course. This is patently untrue. The sniping and bickering made it a very unpleasant place to hang around, and I unsubscribed from the group.
It seemed to me that instead of the very simple idea of miksang as fresh perception, which is by nature without rules, all sorts of judgements and regulations were being applied to it and that in turn led to a lot of people getting worried and insecure about whether their photos counted as Miksang or not. I didn’t feel that this was in keeping with the original idea of miksang, nor was it something I wanted to be part of. On top of that, many of these rules and assumptions didn’t strike me as being either logical or in the spirit of the contemplative approach. I’d like to take a look at some of these.
The first one is the idea that it can’t be miksang unless it’s in colour, as colour is part of the original perception. However, if black and white isn’t ‘allowed’ then miksang photography would have been impossible until colour photography became commonplace. In fact Thomas Merton (mentioned earlier) always – as far as I’m aware – photographed in black and white. Most of Minor White’s work was also in black and white, and in fact, colour film wasn’t commonly used until the 1950s. I really don’t believe that immediate or fresh perception is something that only came along with the advent of colour film.
But to take this a little further, much is made in miksang photography of the idea of ‘seeing reality as it is’. However, any first year philosophy student is aware that the idea of there being some objective reality that exists independently of us is very problematic. And any psychology student will tell you something similar – ‘reality’ is always filtered and interpreted through our minds and senses and as such is different – sometimes subtly, sometimes radically – for each individual. Someone with colour blindness will see the external world differently to someone without and her photographs will reflect that. That doesn’t mean that she isn’t seeing clearly or experiencing fresh perception. Someone with perfect vision might ‘see’, in his mind’s eye, the scene in front of him in black and white and choose to record it that way. The true meaning of ‘seeing reality as it is’, to me, is to see without judgement or preconceptions
And then there’s the camera. The ‘eye’ of the camera and our own eyes work very differently. Lenses can stretch space or compress it, they can bend vertical lines, change colours, blur or sharpen, make things look bigger, smaller, closer or further away. You see, then you use the camera to record what you see, but it will never record exactly what that is. The best you can hope for is that you have enough knowledge of how the camera works to get it to come somewhere close to what you’re perceiving yourself.
The biggest misunderstanding, to my mind, is that the original act of perception and the resulting photograph are one and the same thing. Contemplative photography is largely about the process of photography rather than the end result – in fact, this is one of its tenets. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mix the two up, which leads to criticisms that an image isn’t miksang. Well, no, it isn’t – the original perception was miksang and the photograph is just the result – a kind of by-product. Hopefully it will reflect what the photographer saw, but it’s quite possible to see freshly but not have the ability to use your camera to express that. Sometimes, it’s true, you can be fairly sure by looking at an image that it hasn’t resulted from a contemplative/mindful/miksang approach, but you can never be certain.
And one area where my own practice veers wildly away from what’s regarded as acceptable in both contemplative/mindful photography, or miksang, is post-processing. In the spirit of going after ‘reality as it is’, anything much beyond straight-out-of-the-camera shots is frowned on. However, my view is that simply by taking a photograph we have already gone beyond ‘reality as it is’, and if you shoot in jpeg format the camera will have done some processing for you anyway before it presents the image to you. I would rather regard post-processing as part of making tangible the original perception – that is, to help get the image to resemble what you saw at the time. I know there will be lots of people who’d disagree with me on this, and I accept that..
And I’m not trying to put miksang, or even Miksang, down – far from it. There is much of value there and it’s well worth looking at the various Miksang sites. I also think, like many things, it has become distorted by misunderstandings. However, to come full circle, what I expected to happen with my miksang Monday slot, eventually did. I got emails from a couple of people asking me how a particular image could possibly be miksang, because……..insert one of the reasons above. They were very nice emails, and had more of the air of a general enquiry, but still I thought it best to call a halt, because I don’t fully fit into the miksang box. Mainly because of the post-processing issue, I don’t even fit properly into the contemplative/mindful box, but at least I don’t feel so cramped in there.
Because of all this, sometimes I feel a little fraudulent referring to myself as a mindful or contemplative photographer, even though I think that’s what I am. Now that I’m running classes and workshops on mindful photography, it seemed time that I put on record where I stand and why I might not always conform to accepted ideas on these things..
I feel as if I’ve lost my way a little with this blog at the moment, especially photographically, but things have been going on in the background.
My podcast recording of the interview with Radio Newark has finally been posted, after some delay caused by technical hitches. If you’d like to listen to it, you can click play below, or if that doesn’t work look for it on the Girls Around Town podcast page: http://www.radionewark.co.uk/podcasts/girls-around-town/ (there are lots of other interesting interviews on there too).
Girls Around Town, Radio Newark, broadcast on 30th April, 2017 – Gilly Walker talking about mindfulness and photography.
I was waiting until it went up before I said anything about it, so now I can tell you that it wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I thought it might be. It’s easy to forget that there (presumably) are lots of people out there listening, as you’re only aware of the other two people in the studio. The worst part is the large black mic positioned a few inches in front of your face, but that’s not so bad and you get used to it. The time went really quickly, and I still had lots left to say that I hadn’t said. All in all, it was very relaxed and informal, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Moreover, on listening to the soundtrack I actually seem to sound quite coherent which was not at all how I felt!
Other news is that I had some photos in an exhibition in Leicesterduring May – the woman who organised it approached me to ask if I’d be interested in being included, and of course I was. It was the easiest thing I’ve done in a long time – all I had to do was send her the high-res files and she had them printed, mounted and framed. I was quite chuffed to find I’d been given a little alcove to myself, with three of my prints displayed – I’ve used one of the pictures at the top of this post, and you can see the other two below. Like many folk, I rarely get anything printed out and it was fantastic to see the images in print, rather than just digitally displayed. It’s made me think that I must turn more of my photos into prints.
Another thing I’m hoping to do is to put on a solo exhibition at Newark Town Hall in 2018, and am making enquiries about that. I have so many photos I’ve taken on the walk from my home, through the cemetery, and round Balderton Lake, and they’d not only be of local interest but would back up my claim that you can take endless interesting shots even if you only keep going back to the same place time and time again. I have to get some images together on a series of themes and then have a chat with the curator. It’s been really busy lately so this has sunk to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list, but I’ll get there eventually.
Finally, I have a new course running, starting next week (3rd July) at Southwell Library. It’s called Exploring Mindfulness Creatively through Photography and will run for five weeks, with more dates planned for the autumn term. You can find details here: https://www.inspireculture.org.uk/skills-learning/community-learning/2017/07/community-learning-exploring-mindfulness-creatively-photography-southwell-library/ This is also quite nerve-wracking as I haven’t taught this before in a formal way with groups. It’s taking a lot of work to make sure I’ve put something good together and of course there will be tweaks and alterations as I go along as you never get it entirely right first time. I’m also in discussion about running the same thing in a one-day format for a local business who put on lots of little workshops centred around nature, arts and crafts, so I hope to have something happening there soon, as well.
So – busy, busy, busy behind the scenes, but I’ve found it hard to get motivated to post here regularly. I’d like to think that I might get back to it again soon – I miss my blog when I don’t post and I’ve managed to keep it going since 2011, which is far longer than I ever thought I’d achieve. It would be a shame to let it go now.
An awful lot of my photography over the last year or two has ended up being black and white. I never set out to do this – it just sort of happened, largely due to there not being much colour around a lot of the time. Vivid colour really used to be my thing, and I seem to have become a bit set in my ways with the black and white and find it quite difficult to produce colourful images these days – I’m so tuned into black and white tones that I’m not really seeing the colour any more. This is something I’m going to work on, and in the meantime I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and reading about colour and its uses. I thought I’d share some of the more interesting stuff with you.
Even as a little girl, I understood that one person’s perception of a colour might not be another’s. There’s good reason why I ended up studying philosophy, and you could easily have spotted the nascent philosopher in me at a very young age, when I went around wondering if the red I saw was the same as the red someone else saw. This surely isn’t normal for an eight-year-old, and obviously I had no idea how to actually answer that question. Recently I came across this article on colour dictionaries. It doesn’t entirely solve this particular problem, because there’s still no way of knowing if the colour you see in the dictionary looks the same as the one I see, but it does provide a means for figuring out if the thing you saw was the same colour as the thing I saw (even if we saw the colour differently – I hope you’re following). For example, colour dictionaries were used for bird identification and even to catalogue things like chrysanthemums. The modern version of the colour dictionary is Pantone’s colour chart, which is used by graphic designers, the fashion industry, interior designers, and anyone who is anyone in the creative world. And if you’re interested, Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2017 is Greenery, a rather pleasant mid-green – according to Pantone it’s a ‘life-affirming shade……emblematic of the pursuit of personal passions and vitality’. Well, there you go.
I love to use a lot of colour in my home, and our walls are painted various shades of terracotta, aqua blue, coral, green (a bit brighter than the Pantone colour above) and scarlet. When we moved into this house, what is now our snug was painted a kind of dull mushroom brown. The room gets very little natural light due to an extension on the back of it and I found it really quite depressing to be in. I pondered over what to do with it – it was never going to be a light and bright room whatever colour it was painted, so I reckoned we should work with it and do what we could to make it feel warm and cosy. I’d seen a colour I loved but didn’t know where I could use it. It was a warm, deep coral and I had a little tester pot to hand. One day I couldn’t stand it any more and I whipped it out and painted the chimney breast. I loved it. In the end we decided to go all out and painted all four walls this colour. You can see the result below. Everyone says they really like it, although there’s always a second or two of shock when they walk in.
And if you think this is a bit tame and you’d prefer a tad more colour in a house, try this one. I think that’s more than I could live with myself, but I love its happy, cheerful spirit.
Adult colouring books are the thing at the moment, but the MapYourProgress site has a whole new take on them. They supply Creative Progress Maps – each black and white picture is made up of ‘swirls’ that represent steps towards your goal, and you colour in each swirl as you achieve that step. You might use them to record your progress in paying off a debt, losing weight, moving closer to an important date, or anything that’s measurable in small increments. This really appeals to the child in me, although most of the things I want to achieve don’t lend themselves to such uniform incremental steps, but I guess I could allow myself the pleasure of colouring in a few swirls every time I take a step forward.
The film director Derek Jarman once wrote a book called Chroma which is, as you might guess, about colour. It’s a strange book because it mostly consists of him free-associating around one colour at a time, with scraps of proverb, myth, legend, facts, and autobiography thrown in. I didn’t think I’d finish it, because there’s no real story, no plot, no feeling of getting anywhere, but it’s strangely compelling to read. It’s made all the more moving by the fact of Jarman’s growing blindness as he wrote it. Jarman is famous for his film Blue, which showed only a single shot of a vivid blue colour, accompanied by a soundtrack describing his life and vision. He was already partially blind when he made it.
Something I’d never thought about much is the role that colour plays in writing. It’s true that I’d always liked Tennyson because he uses colour so much and so well in his poetry – he paints a scene with so much sensual detail that you feel as if you’re there and can forgive him for his rather Victorian sentiment – but I hadn’t considered using colour in a more metaphorical way when it comes to writing. Then I came across this blog post from Cigdem Kobu where she interviews Monika Cleo Sakki, who has this to say:
‘Another way to “write with color,” is to be guided by the energy of a color. To embody it in the way you write, the style you go about it, and the atmosphere you create.
Let’s say you want to write with a fiery Red: Write fast. Seek action. Introduce a major event upfront. Use short sentences and to the point. Tempo. Momentum. State bold opinions. Strike taboo subjects and daring concepts. Include blood, speed, sweat, or tears.
And of course, color can be a source of inspiration. What stories come to your mind when you think of Blue? Or Brown? As themes?’
‘One of the most important things when it comes to design is to choose your palette. A limited palette, that is. Of course you can decide to go rainbowy and all, but then you dilute the power of each color, and the bounty of colors becomes your one color, one message, one mood.
So, when you start to write, ask yourself, “What is the leading color of this scene/feeling/memory and so on”? Your answer will intensify how you see scene/feeling/memory and how you make it come alive, even without using one word that describes a color… It’s like your secret weapon!’
And finally, I’ve got some photographers for you who really know how to rock it in terms of colour. The first is Floto+Warner, who produced their incredible Splash of Colour series. They froze the action of colourful paint as it was thrown/projected into the air, and refer to the results as ‘floating sculptural events’. Quite spectacular.
The second photographer is Ursula Abrecht, whose work I came across and immediately loved some time ago. Her images are highly abstract landscapes dissolving into soft swathes and swirls of gorgeous, luscious colour. Lately she’s applied the same techniques to shots of modern architecture, with interesting results, and some of her flower images are exquisite, but my real love is for her colourful landscapes. I hadn’t realised till I went and had another look at her site that you can buy prints of her images for very reasonable prices – eg, an A4 print for £11. All I have to do now is decide which one……….
There’s a lot going on at the moment, with opportunities popping up all over the place. Such a change from just over a year ago, when Geoff had just became employed again after two years of no work and the financial crises and monumental worry that went along with that. You think when you’re in the middle of this kind of thing that when it ends you’ll feel like breaking out the bubbly and dancing round the kitchen with a huge smile on your face. Not so.
The reality is that when it’s gone on for such a long time, you become worn down by it. Your heart and emotions go numb, because if they didn’t you couldn’t keep going, and it takes some time after it all ends to bring yourself back to you again. It’s taken me most of this last year to let go of the protective shell I put round myself and to start moving forward into a new kind of life.
Three months ago I suddenly realised I could buy books again. The fact is that I could have done this at any time in the last year, but I was so used to thinking that I couldn’t allow myself any kind of luxury that that belief had become ingrained in me. And then, a few months ago, I was searching the library’s database for a book I wanted to order and read, and they didn’t have it. The thought came suddenly – I could buy it! And so I did. A small example, but it shows how you adapt your thoughts and actions to suit the situation, and how difficult it is when things change for the better to remember to let go of those beliefs and adopt new ones.
One thing that always gives me great pleasure and satisfaction, and that also had been missing from my life during this time, is going on workshops and learning something new. Two weekends ago I went on a sequencing, editing and bookmaking workshop with John Blakemore, and I’ll write some more about that in due course. For the moment, it’s enough to say that the weekend was inspiring, fun, frustrating, tiring, and wonderful, and that it felt so good to be able to do this sort of thing again.
Another thing you think, when you come out of survival mode, is that you can then fire ahead at full steam with what you’d really like to be doing. But it doesn’t work that way at all – well, not for me anyhow. For the first six months of last year I was still doing Airbnb almost full-time, and was so tied up with it that I had no energy to even think about other things. By July of last year I’d made the decision to stop, instead letting two rooms in the house on a long-term basis, and suddenly I was free again. However, that freedom went along with feeling just a little lost and confused. What was it I had wanted to do? It was hard to remember.
Then some things happened to move me along. I went back to a women’s networking organisation I had been going to before all of this kicked off, and my ideas about using photography as a way into mindfulness and self-awareness went down very positively. I still hadn’t done anything very practical about it, however, but the turning point came a couple of months ago when I was asked if I would take part in a local radio show where I would be interviewed on contemplative photography and anything else I was up to Knowing I had a deadline was exactly what I needed to get me moving again.
So my radio interview is next weekend, which is both terrifying and exciting me in equal measures. I’m in the process of being taken on as a tutor by Inspire (who run the local arts, culture and library service), and they seem very open to the kind of ideas I have for new workshops. I’ve been told of another, private, organisation who run countryside-based one-day workshops and I’m just about to approach them with some things that I think would be a good fit for them. I’ve made some enquiries about putting on a solo show in Newark Town Hall Museum next year, and I received an email the other day asking me to take part in an exhibition on contemplative photography to be held in Leicester. All of this has happened in the last two weeks or so and I feel a bit as if I’m on a rather delightful runaway train.
The photo above was taken last spring, on the first holiday we’d had for over five years. There are a number of things that I like about it – the soft pink profusion of the clematis blooms against the delicate blue sky, the juxtaposition of the man-made and the natural, and best of all, the way in which the clematis has made excellent use of what it was presented with. I’m sure there’s a lesson there for us all.
I haven’t got a great deal to write about at the moment, so I’m going back in time a bit. My writing course finished a while ago, but in the last session we worked on trying out different poetic structures. The first exercise – which led me to think that our tutor has a demonic streak that she normally manages to hide extremely well – went like this. We had to take a word of eleven letters, use the letters to create as many other words of four letters or more as we could, then write an eleven-line poem in which – wait for it – the last word in each line had to be one of the words we’d extracted from the original word. I hope you’re keeping up here.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, we were told the word we had to use was ‘chimpanzees’. Well, I failed, miserably. For one thing, I loathe chimpanzees. I’m not keen on any of the primates, but chimpanzees, with those horrible gurning old-people faces, personify for me the worst stuff about humans without any of the good things. That aside, the whole thing felt too much like an intellectual exercise, on a par with – perhaps – solving cryptic crossword clues or doing sudokus, neither of which appeal to me in the slightest. I simply couldn’t get into it at all.
I have a deep suspicion that Fiona was motivated to give us something truly horrible to start with so that we wouldn’t freak out when she said the next thing we had to do was write a sonnet. Believe me, after the anagram crossword exercise, a sonnet seemed like a breeze. For an awful moment it did look like the subject of the sonnet was going to be James Bond, but fortunately someone else protested and that idea was abandoned. We got chocolate instead – chocolate as a subject, that is, not the real stuff. (Although by then some of the real stuff would have been more than welcome.)
So here’s my sonnet to chocolate. In case you’re wondering, a sonnet is structured with rhyme endings that go like this: first eight lines are AB AB CD CD, then six lines that go CDE CDE, or alternatively you can have the last two lines as a rhyming couplet. I’m afraid mine falls apart a bit towards the end, and it might well have Shakespeare turning in his grave, but you can’t expect perfection in the space of twenty minutes.
Chocolate – a love story
We’ve had a life-long love affair, we two.
Though times I’ve tried to leave you and be free
It never lasts and I return to you –
I can never have enough of you, you see.
You’ve been my solace in a hostile world,
You’ve been my sweetness, oh, and my delight.
You’re there for me, your wrapper comes unfurled
At any time of day, or even night.
But I must give you up, I know I must,
Though it leaves a space that I can never fill.
I think of you and I am filled with lust
And seeing your rich brown body’s quite a thrill.
But here’s the thing: I’m getting rather fat, and clothing-wise things are a little tight.
I’ll give you up, I swear I will, I must. But even so, not without a fight.
This postcard fell out of the book I was reading in bed this morning. The book is called Love Anthony, by Lisa Genova – you may know her as the writer of the novel on which the film Still Alice was based. I was having a duvet morning. Sometimes I just feel inexplicably low and flat and tired and this morning was one of those days. Sometimes I have to get up anyway because there are things that must be done and obligations and commitments that must be met, but this morning I was lucky and had the luxury of being able to snuggle up, stay put, and finish the book.
The book is a touching story about the bereaved mother of a young boy with autism who died at the age of ten, and another woman whose husband has just left her for someone else, and how their paths intermingle and cross, ultimately helping both of them to come to terms with their losses. Although its subject would seem to be about autism, the story is really about love in its various forms, and most of all, about loving unconditionally. It’s beautifully written and a compelling read, and I didn’t want to put it down. I cried. Much of it was to do with the story in the book, but some of it was because it linked to things in my own past that the story brought to mind, and some of it was simply because I was feeling a little low anyway. And then the postcard fell out.
On the back is printed: WRITE SOMETHING NICE TO SOMEONE YOU’VE NEVER MET. There’s an empty space for writing in, and then instructions to leave the postcard somewhere where someone will find it – a library book, a cafe table, a pigeon hole. Inside the box, someone had written this:
Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.
Don’t confuse your path with your destination. Just because it’s stormy now doesn’t mean you aren’t headed for sunshine.
After reading it, I cried some more, because I believe that what you need comes to you at just the right time and because somebody, somewhere had cared enough to place the postcard in the book in the hope that it might help whoever read it.
There seems to be so much unkindness and anger in the world at the moment, so much tragedy and hatred and suffering and intolerance. These things seem so huge that it’s hard to know what you can do that will make any difference. I know I’m not the kind of person who’s ever going to do great things. I’m not going to suffer for a cause, volunteer in war-torn countries, be a political agitator, generate thousands for charity, or anything like that. But I do believe in kindness, and I do believe that small kindnesses can make a big difference. I’m aware that I have many flaws, and I know that, like most of us, I’ve been unkind when I could have done better, or failed to be kind when it would have been easy for me. But I do try, whenever I feel able, to carry out some small and unexpected kindnesses. And I’ve been on the receiving end of many small kindnesses, and they have touched me deeply at the time and will live in my memory for always.
So I think it’s possible to make a difference in the world in very small ways. We can’t all do ‘big’ stuff, but small gestures can mean a lot and are something everyone can manage. The postcard was a small and lovely, unexpected gift from someone who would get nothing in return other than the hope that it cheered the person who found it. Last week I was clearing out my desk drawers, and I found a number of photos that I had printed for various reasons but never used. I thought it would be nice to adopt the postcard idea and do something similar with the prints. It’s a small thing to do – a very small thing – but I hope that it might make a difference to someone, somewhere, like this one did for me.
Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.
I got my first smartphone at Christmas, and yes, I know I’m behind about 90% of the population but I got there in the end. I have very little interest in phones themselves, but I was keen to have a go at using the camera function. I’ve seen some interesting work done with phone cameras and I knew there were some fun apps you could use to process afterwards.
What I’m about to say is unlikely to be news to anyone but me, but I’ll say it anyway. I was very pleasantly surprised by its performance in bright light, but its performance in low light is abysmal. And naturally, everything looks much better on the very small screen of the phone, so it’s hard to tell how good/bad they are until you see them on a full-size screen and it’s often disappointing when you do. It’s true that the poor quality is almost a feature of phone images, and also true that when it’s bad it’s so bad it almost has a painterly quality which can sometimes be appealing.
There have been some frustrations apart from lack of quality. I uploaded the Snapseed app as I’d heard it was one of the best all-round apps for editing, and it was wonderfully easy to use with lots of options. However, when I came to upload the pictures to my computer the edited ones loaded in a format that Elements doesn’t recognise, and after a bit of Googling to find out why, it turns out that the only way to get them there is to email them to yourself or upload them to iCloud, which I haven’t set up yet. Grump.
In the end, the easiest thing to do was reprocess the originals using Photoshop on my desktop computer. Obviously you can’t shoot in RAW formaton a phone, but you can open the jpegs in the RAW processor, which is quite useful at times. One thing that impressed me was how the phone dealt with the very bright sun in the puddle reflection. My normal camera would have turned this into a shapeless, burnt-out blob, but the camera phone has retained a nice clean circular shape for the sun. Another thing is that sometimes colours don’t come out very well, so it often repays to convert these to black and white.
Despite the drawbacks, it’s been really, really fun having a half-decent camera on hand at all times and, better still, it’s got me taking photos again. I still seem to be on a tree theme, without really meaning to be. To be honest, there’s not a lot else that appeals at the moment, although colour is coming back to the world again and hopefully I’ll find myself getting inspired by other things as well fairly soon.
I don’t think this is ever going to replace my usual camera, but I wanted to see what was possible using a phone. In about six weeks time I’m going to be interviewed on local radio, and before then am trying to put together some workshops based on using photography as a tool to enhance well-being and develop mindfulness. I want the workshops to be open to anyone, regardless of what sort of camera they have, so it’s been good to prove to myself that you can get some really nice images with phone cameras.
My old cat died last night, just a couple of weeks short of her twentieth birthday. She stopped eating, and for the latter half of the day she lay there glassy-eyed and unmoving and I knew it was time. She was so thin it was hard to see how her body could support life, her fur was dry and matted, and she felt so fragile I thought she might shatter with a touch. Her time had come.
I wanted to hold vigil with her on her last night, so I wrapped her in a blanket and laid her on a cushion beside my bed. At 12:50am she began to twitch wildly, then took her last few ragged breaths as I gently stroked her. I think it was a good death, with a minimum of suffering, in a familiar place, wrapped in all the love I have to give.
The kittens gathered round, unsure what was happening, but somehow knowing to keep a respectful distance. Later, I placed her body on a table in my office and Fingal extended a gentle paw to touch hers. I was lucky enough to have my camera in my hand at the time.
A little while ago, I wrote this poem after Wicca had made a rare visit to me when I was lying sleepless in bed one night. We have a three-storey house and she hadn’t been to the top floor of the house in months.
You came to me tonight,
easing your arthritic body up several steep flights
just to see me,
and allow me to stroke your dulled fur
and murmur your name into deaf ears.
I was having dark thoughts till you came,
but you led me back to a safe place
and my heart unfurled,
and the soft purr of a loved old cat was all I needed
to let me feel what there is of peace in this world.
I discovered some great little online courses recently, run by the University of Tasmania. They’re all centred around art, health and wellness, each on a different aspect of art and design. So far I’ve signed up for The Art of Wellness: Visual Arts and Health; Inspired by Nature: Outdoor Therapeutic Environments; and Creative Expressions: Storywriting, Journalling and Poetry. Each of them has a couple of practical assignments, which I must admit I’ve not been very conscientious about doing.
The Art of Wellness covers photography, sculpture and drawing and I haven’t done any of those yet, although I have good intentions. At the moment I’m working on Inspired by Nature, which has two practical exercises. One of them is to design a community eco-arts intervention, something that leaves me feeling somewhat confused and confounded. I might come back to that. The other, however, is a bit more up my street – wildcrafting.
You may already be familiar with Andy Goldsworthy, who has to be the poster boy for this kind of thing. He makes the most amazing, ephemeral sculptures out of natural materials such as wood, ice, leaves, and so on, and then photographs them. They’re stunningly beautiful and exquisitely crafted. This isn’t the only way to go with this assignment and you can interpret it how you like, but I thought I’d give this approach a go.
It’s amazing how difficult I find it just to go out and play. I went out to the garden, thinking I’d look for inspiration and the first thing I noticed was last year’s dead stems, foliage and other debris crowding the border and threatening to smother the new growth. An hour later, I’d cleared and composted quite a bit of it and thought perhaps I’d just do something quickly, to satisfy myself that at least I’d tried. It felt frivolous and time-wasting and I had to push myself to do it.
Since it’s Valentine’s day this week, making a heart out of the proliferation of red berries on a tree that I don’t know the name of, seemed like a reasonable way to go. A stone bench in the garden, covered in moss and lichen, offered a rather nice background – I thought the greens would contrast nicely with the red of the berries. I made my little heart and duly photographed it, but it looked a little bit lacking. I had the idea to surround it in little pieces of gravel and it looked a lot better. Then I noticed the bright yellow leaves on the hedge and began to play with placing them around the heart. Finally, I finished off by placing more red berries at the tip of each leaf. Andy Goldsworthy eat your heart out!
It really was great fun and I could have spent hours out there, trying out different ideas. I’d love to do more, but my inner adult is trying hard not to allow that, and it brought it home to me how hard I find it just to play, without feeling guilty. In truth, I might not have done it at all if I hadn’t thought that it would provide material for a blog post. That’s a little sad. The other thing I realised is that it’s very tricky positioning little bits of things just so, and my admiration for AG has soared to even greater heights.
If you’re interested in any of the courses, you can find details here. The first one- Art of Wellness – is free, and after that they’re each a very reasonable 20 Australian dollars (about £12 in UK money).