Cowgirl reading; beach safety flag; lovelocks

I ran more than 15 km today, the longest I’ve run this year. I told my creativity coach that I’d been taking photos every day but, I said, they aren’t very interesting. Take some interesting ones, she said. So I’m trying to combine training and creative practice and run with a photographer’s eye.

Bench and surprisingly empty stretch of lake.


Cowgirl reading on the boardwalk.


365/19 7.23

Our version of a prayer flag — the “here there be lifeguards” safety flag.


(I saw one red flag for unsafe water — better than I thought after all the flooding and rain).

And something I have never noticed before, on the humber bridge: dozens of little “lovelocks,” some with names or initials on them. Which, apparently, the city doesn’t like.


Mid-day, and unsettled and windy, so a quieter space for a thudding run. A few lovers snogging on the edge of the beach, kids in the splashpad, the slightly chaotic, gender-non-specific baton twirler practicing on the beach, the ethical vegans protesting the absorb abattoir in the middle of the city. Running, seeing, being here for the first time in July in years. Letting the city flow over me as I run over it.


Stories lived

I saw a man bathing at a well in front of a ruined temple in Ava.

man washing ruins

I was in a horse cart, driving around the farms and tiny houses and drifts of brick and teak and carvings that were once the capital city Inwa. I made my driver stop, and tentatively approached the bathing man. The water flying from the bucket, the man small against the ruins, drew me.

man ruins

I felt intrusive. Every photo I take of a person feels like this – I want a moment, to capture a story, to see something in it – and I don’t want to treat people like objects. A constant tension. Asking creates something different, a showing off or posing or a V sign flashed. A conscious crafting. I want to see stories lived as well as stories told. There are many people who would tell me catching stories lived is objectifying. I hear that. And there is something important for me in capturing the moments where people aren’t shaping their stories, but just living them.

close up man washing

The man by the ruins, a man washing his bicycle in a hut made of garbage. The girl applying her day’s dhanakka in a tiny shack by the Ayerwaddy River, wooden huts perched in mounds of garbage where pigs and chickens root about, trucks gather sand that they sell for cement.

girl dhanakha

Crafting self for the world even at the absolute edge of “civilization.” I try to walk a taut line between capturing and respect.

I greet the girl with the hand mirror, exchange smiles. Hold up the camera – “is it okay?” She nods. I gesture to the man at the ruins. May I use your soap to wash my hands? He nods and pumps fresh water for me, smiles. When he is dressed, he poses, clean. We smile at each other.


Miksang — Good Eye

“Even though things usually seem solid and enduring, nothing really lasts a second moment.”

I did a workshop on contemplative photography on the weekend, an approach called Miksang, which means “good eye.”  The practice derives from the Dharma Art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, a meditation master and scholar, and is not in and of itself an approach to meditation, but intended to connect people more directly to direct perception, direct experience.

Essentially, learning miksang is about deconstructing what we see into different elements — colour, space, light, pattern and texture — and practicing honing in on those elements as they grab us in a “flash of perception.”  Open your eyes, what grabs you, pay deep attention to that.  In level 1, nothing is supposed to even be recognizable as of the world.

In simplest terms, colour, anchored by a contrast.

blue yellow colour

Blue (with yellow).

colour red


I really liked the simplicity of the approach, the notion that we can “stop the mind by stopping the eye.” I really liked wandering around the sunny spring day in the neighbourhood that used to be mine, but which has changed so much in the last 8 years that bringing a fresh eye, honing in on the details, was a gift. Like revisiting your past to notice the moments of joy.

dot apple

One of the purposes of miksang is to see the art in everyday life, to notice the moments and what is there, pause on the ordinary to wake up the mind and eye.

foot man

What I loved about some of the images I shot was that I couldn’t remember, later, where they had been — I’d been so in the moment that even in the three or four block radius we wandered, I hadn’t tracked “the outside world.” Rare for me.

I didn’t finish the whole workshop, since I had to take off to get ready to go to Ottawa for a couple of days for work. That was probably enough, since the experience itself was a little emotionally cluttered for me. I really liked and meshed with the approach of one of the teachers, and not so much with the other — he was a little too in-jokey, and good/bad judgey. (And half his shots were perplexingly out of focus). He giggled in an unbecoming way at some of the shots we came up with, saying things like “John would hate that” (John was his teacher, not present) or “that’s a miksang trap,” meaning “cliché for this assignment.” Those are really the kinds of comments I find more helpful from a learning point of view not on, say, the FIRST DAY of learning something new.

I was paying a lot of attention to my impatience with him, and with myself-in-that-day, impatient with the guy selling me a paper cup full of oatmeal, and with confusion over timing at lunchtime (I was back 25 minutes before everyone else, and got irritated sitting in the darkened room on a glorious day, listening to Mr Miksang Trap crunch skittles). There’s a lot of impatience and anxiety threading through my world right now, which is probably why I’m not writing or shooting so much (and why I should). And it does show up in times where I’m deliberately slowing down, like this workshop.

I did do the “light” assignment before I bowed out to organize my world for the week ahead (apparently only moderately successfully, judging by showing up at Audi to get my tires changed for the summer and realizing I’d forgotten to put the tires in the car, and leaving the flipcharts from my monday meeting in a cab).


back lit tulip

Side light.

light reeds

Patches of light.

patches deck

Side light, I think.

birch light

Front and side artificial light.

lemon light

That lemon isn’t technically level 1, because you know it’s a lemon, and it’s not “really” light because it’s artificial, and and and. In miksang, there seem to be a lot of things that are not as much as are, and at least two gently tussling schools of thought. But as a practice for attention, for seeing, for slowing, it’s a gift.

Unstrung meaning

We spent most of our time in Brazil in the Pantanal, a great stretch of savannah and cerrado forest in southwest Brazil, ranches and humpty backed cows and jaguars and capybaras and macaws and monkeys and parakeets and parrots and crazy huge jaibaru storks.

Chachalachas chattering and fluttering from tree to tree, guans chirruping, flitting among the cows.

Countless herons and ibis and kingfishers and hummingbirds.

(Cocoi heron with fish)

And caimans. Just bloody hundreds of caimans. Everywhere, on every bank, and next to the road, idly being lying there, mouths open to cool off, being prehistoric.

There’s one long slow dusty line of a road running down the length of the Pantanal, which proved to be too much for the already rickety keyboard of my flimsy 11 inch macbook air. Before I left, I had some major issues with the thing, when a bit of damage to the screen inflicted when a client knocked it off a podium in February suddenly spread, until it looked like a tiny 3 year old had been unleashed inside my computer with a sharpie.

(7.16 – #198)

I actually had to buy a new, shiny computer before I left, for my work, since the Geniuses couldn’t fix the display inside of a week, and I needed to work on a massive lit review, and couldn’t read on the tiny, scribbled on screen. But I thought I’d bring the crapped out one with me to Brazil to download photos and blog a bit, around the screen ooze. Meant to get the display fixed when I got back, to have a travel computer.

(7.21 – #203)

And then we drove on the Pantaneira, dust clouded into our lousy Fiat Dobro — the same vehicle whose door had to be tied shut with my belt on the way to the airport after we banged the car around the outback for two weeks — and despite the fact that the Air was in my photo bag, the keyboard was destroyed. Like the line of angry chigger bits that flared right around my waist, all of the keys in the middle of my computer were welted and scraped by the fine dust. After the second day in Brazil, typing on my Air produced unpredictable strings of letters, or nothing — including when I pushed the space bar. Hard to even organize photos, when the attempt to call a folder “pygmy kingfisher” generates pgmkigfissader.

Not being able to write things while I was away created a lot of unfinished strings for me. Like jellyfish trails, opaque and vague behind me. Turns out that I make meaning of things when I write about them, when I craft some narrative that brings images and words together, gives me the meditative space to live into reflective self. It’s like emotional stuttering for me, to not be able to write my way through things I’m experiencing, to see them take shape, not flutters of feeling and sensation and snippets of sentences. And I realized on this trip that I am no longer capable of really writing with a pencil or pen, more than a sentence or two — even if I could have kept from losing all the pencils I brought.

It was something of a revelation, traveling loaded down with kit — heavy duty Canon 7D with three lenses, ipad, kobo e-reader, iphone, compact Lumix camera — and discovering how much my experience is mediated through my technology. I see more because of the binoculars, study the space around me when I shoot photos, “own” the birds when I pull them out of my camera and onto my computer and choose the best images. I joke with Finch about stealing a piece of the birds’ souls, and it really upsets him — he’s always careful to say thank you to birds and other creatures after they’ve quietly sat with him, shown themselves to him. I don’t really feel like a soul thief, but I do feel I “have” them in a new way once they’re in my gaze, in silico, shared.

Now, I find I’m kind of encumbered and feverish after a couple of days when I can’t assemble images and sentences. I am just fine being away from wifi, and the boat trips to Baja and Svalbard were good relief from connectivity. I don’t have to be able to SHARE them. But not being able to craft words, make a story — I don’t feel whole.

There is a fair bit of theory in the realm of narrative psychology about how things become “real” when we can tell them as stories. That saying “I saw a harpy eagle” is not very meaningful in and of itself, without the context that harpy eagles are rare and spectacular, that they are in the “top ten” for many birders of what to see ever in their lives, that they are only seen in thin stretches of south america, that seeing one requires patience, that I am not the sort of person who brings a lot of patience to most endeavours, that I have not been an explorer for hard-to-see birds most of my life, that I not only saw a harpy eagle but named it, spent several hours in its presence over three days, ran around a ranch when the adult was spotted, sat alone in a forest clearing looking directly at this young bird while it looked at me. Found myself a person loving an individual, far away bird. Affirmed a Cate I wasn’t, say, five years ago, who would care about and have such a profound encounter with a bird. Seeing the bird is one moment of grace; weaving together all of the elements that makes it so powerful crystallizes it, deepens what I’m experiencing, grounds me simultaneously in the moment and echoes forward into a reminder that I will need to be grateful for that moment always.

There is, of course, a tension in this — a question about how to stay present to what is in front of you while simultaneously aware of what the story or meaning of this experience is. I have a pretty visceral reaction to some of the ways that things like “bucket lists” are described, where important experiences seem to take on a checklist form, for bragging rights, or people engaging in things so they will be able to say later that they did it. There is always some of this — we do things because we think of ourselves or want to think of ourselves as the kind of person who does things like this. Barnett always described stories lived and stories told (along with a whole series of types of stories unlived and untold and untellable and heard and unheard). I think living in this tension is about holding loosely to stories lived and stories told at the same time — part of truly living and being present to a moment is about understanding, at some level, what is making this moment significant or memorable. And that’s about a context.

Sometimes I wonder if writing and blogging and taking photos is a practice of gratitude for me. Sometimes writing is just about sorting out — what connections are there that I can’t make without sentences and narratives? what ways are there to understand this? what comes together with metaphors and ideas that suddenly appear out of my fingertips when I shape a paragraph? what feels like the best way to talk about this, makes it feel integrated and most whole? And sometimes, the practice of blogging or writing or shaping and sharing is about gratitude — about honouring moments of grace or connection or humanness, about inviting other people to honour them with me. Starting to flick into a question about “what do I most want to remember or share about this moment?” — even as I’m experiencing it — has the effect of deepening it. It deepens even as I’m noticing the immediate, what’s there, trying to look closely at the blue dacnis and white woodpeckers, feel the prickle of grass and irritating whiskering of sweatbees on my skin, hear the full soundscape, the twittering and songs and calls and wingbeats AND the cars on the road AND the siren and bangings from the mine down the valley. Being there is full; and it becomes fuller in the noticing; and the noticing happens partly because of an impulse to capture in some way.

(156) The Way Home

I posted a few weeks ago about trying to use my photo project as a bit of a mindfulness practice, about noticing.

Mindfulness has been a really resonant concept for me lately… and I’ll extend it to the concept of bodymindfulness, which a few of my colleagues have been terming it lately.

I’ve felt like I’m inhabiting my own body with a little disjuncture lately, with the residual effects of coming hard off a mild-but-stubborn anti-depressant, with a sense of less fitness than I like to imagine so every workout is a huge chore, with the hot and cold and swamp of a Toronto high humidity heat wave. One of the ways my body feels stress is in sleep disruption, and I’ve had that more sharply than usual, with lots of anxiety dreams, characters from life turned into avatars of different kinds of fear and stress in my nightscape.

I started out this morning wading into the humid warmth to do errands before getting ready to get on a plane, and none of them flowed. Pharmacy messed up my prescription, ATM closed down just as I put my card in it, other bank didn’t know how to process a deposit for my RSP, coffee shop wifi crapped out just as I tried to get online, and my email client decided to upgrade itself so I couldn’t open anything. Getting to the point of remembering to breathe deeply was not a pretty sight, and my conversation with the pharmacist was not much of an example of compassionate interaction.

I keep thinking about noticing, and the environment we’re in, and being conscious that sometimes it’s the endless barrage of input that makes me edgy. Too many things to do, all of them complex little tasks dependent on other people, construction everywhere where one moment of disruption is one thing, but the third within a 10 minute bike ride feels insurmountable. The adding up.

I read a lot about “eco-psychology” a few years ago when I was doing my phd, a theory that basically holds that we’re so distant from the natural world that all pathologized and depressed in some way. The overarching concept makes me a twitchy because it feels a little simplistic and leaves a “now how are we supposed to reverse industrialization?” question – but I am sometimes very conscious of the need to steel myself before I enter the bigger world, prepare for the people almost hitting me with their cars, the customer service that feels endlessly unhelpful, the beeping construction vehicles. As I was trying to go to the bank this morning, the street was half closed off and there was a big sign this morning saying “pedestrians use other sidewalk,” right in front of the door of the bank. I said to the construction guy sort of jovially, “hard to use the other sidewalk when you need to go right there.” “Don’t go there now,” he said, irritably. And I needed to, so I put myself in the path of a backing up bobcat moving construction bits around.

I have been thinking about this concept of girding one’s loins, or steeling oneself, and am realizing that it often just … hardens. It makes you into an antagonist with the environment.

Which is, I think, the link to my photo project. Trying to take at least one photo a day is an act of noticing, trying to be “of” the environment differently, inhabit a different perspective. A couple of weeks ago, walking home from a meeting, I took a lot of photos, trying to notice many small things.


Fake flowers permanently woven onto a bike basket. These are all over the city, and remind me of the fabric rose I had woven around the bike that got stolen right after I moved to the distillery.

More reminders of the force that is cycling in the city, a combination of green beliefs, fierce exercisers, aggressive couriers, hipsters in their fedoras off to play frisbee in Trinity Bellwoods park, and people just trying to get from point A to point B as easily as possible.

Accessibility in Toronto is both physical and linguistic. The Chinese language ATM gives way in a few blocks to the Portugese travel agency.

The Portugese roots are still deeply embedded on Dundas, even as the hipster world swirls up around it. Portugese lady shoes….

… abutted by the kind of finely curated shop where I can’t even figure out what they sell…

… and one of my favourite tiny coffee shops, with excellent drinks, scones and muffins, comprehensive recycling, and no bathroom.

It often has excellent babies to look at, though, all named the kinds of names that are ubiquitous now but didn’t exist 3 years ago, like Xander, Asher and Sadie.

Noticing. As I take inventory of a handful of images on my way home, I realize that being “of” the landscape is possible even in the often shrill city. I don’t always have time for a leisurely stroll home with multiple moments of deep noticing, but the camera is a reminder that every interaction can be a noticing. Reframing the annoying interactions of errands that way shifts something, makes it not about me vs. the world, and more me of the world.

#86-88 (03.26 – 03.28) What I see

One of the things I’ve noticed about my little project to take at least one photo a day is that it sort of gives me a roadmap of what I notice, and what the shape of my day to day life looks like. In weeks when it’s mostly work, and I’m mostly on my own, the world is pretty narrow, and what I notice is pretty limited. And often, I find myself looking around at the end of the evening for something — anything — to photograph. I do slow down and notice things, particularly light, and sunsets, but when the flow and interaction of my day to day life takes place more in virtual than physical space, it’s sometimes hard to find moments of embodied presence, noticing the visual. It’s hard to take a picture of a phone call, and there are only so many captures of screenshots or the readout on the treadmill in my gym that are remotely diverting.

So weeks like this one look like this. The light in the corner of my living room, before bed, falling on two little paintings made my someone I dated briefly more than six years ago…

… (86 – 3.26)

… being driven to working at my kitchen island by the ferocious sunlight I get late afternoons at this time of year, which makes me sweat like a sausage in a sauna, and which finally prompted me to place an order for expensive custom blinds. An efficient, on time, well-groomed little guy with a ladder came and measured, complimented me on the accuracy of my initial estimates. But I’m still reduced to my countertop until they arrive.

(87 – 3.27)

After several days of my narrowly spaced life, I was itching for a change of scene, so decided to take myself out for dinner. I got all tarted up for my little self-date, showering and lipsticking and everything, and picked up a book, and the gift certificate I got from my sister for my birthday… and found myself in an eddy of Toronto FC fans, all ready to sit in a freezing stadium and watch a match with Mexico, occupying every table in my neighbourhood. I got Very Grumpy in a First World Problems type of way, and ended up making asparagus, wild sockeye and risotto.

(88 – 3.28)

I ate too much risotto while watching competitors on Top Chef Canada make inedible food on my macbook, puzzling at why the judges didn’t seem to think salmon was appropriate for a bbq. Guess they’ve never been to BC.

The pattern when I’m alone doesn’t have a lot of shifting parts — work, wandering around in the evening trying to relax, food, exercise, a steady stream of little self rewards. I think of visiting Haworth in February, the Bronte sisters “pacing around” a small table in a tiny, cramped parlour, wind insistent around them, finding worlds in the imagined space between them. So much in that tiny space. So much transformed in really very few decades. I wonder why I can’t create more in the evenings, notice things anew, the desire for something Bigger funneled down to good risotto, appreciation of a good le creuset pot, deep appreciation of my bed. When screens are your workday, and then are your connection point, and entertainment, the portals into the endless global world paradoxically hem me in.