“Fear of being uncomfortable is just fear of the unknown. And the unknown is amazing — as long as you have enough water and food to last you a day.”

(Conversation with the amazing photographer Chris Luckhardt, who I was lucky enough to meet doing urban exploration).

mik letters


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.

At the lodge in eastern Indonesia

It’s just a nibble out of the jungle, this lodge, four guest cabins built Indonesian style with open eaves, a shelter that serves as the dining space and the housing for the TV and owners’ son’s toys, a roughed-in kitchen covered by a tarp set in a far away corner.

The owners and their young son sleep in a tiny hut just big enough for a mattress, the second hut built after the first one went up at half the specifications one week when he was away.  It sits there, posing a question, a storage closet with a roof twice its size.

It’s a camp, really, muddy, rocky ground to tread between cabin, dining shelter, boat, thickened with the heavy rain that comes every afternoon and night. The girls who serve the food and clean the huts march full across the site for every forgotten pancake or egg, every missing part for the game of breakfast. Every day we ask for two hard cooked eggs and two pancakes, and get four eggs and one pancake.

Expressing mild frustration or bemusement is a mistake, an affront to the expat owner. “What do you expect when you hire local people and train them,” he grouses. Diplomatic, I try to say that breakfast is one of those times when people like to get what they ask for, that they’re least flexible before coffee.  “Then they shouldn’t travel,” he says shortly.

Partly we are here so Finch can assess the place as a possible client destination, so the owner’s mulishness surprises me slightly. He’s been here in Indonesia a long time, has one successful lodge on another island, has already suffered from having to restart this one after a first site went wrong somehow.  He’s married to a whipsmart Indonesian woman, and they seem to buy land all over, securing it for conservation.  She has plans to start a kindergarten in the nearby village, trains local people to work for them, encourages them to plant more diverse fruits to sell for more money.

It all works, kind of, in a basic way, but there’s such a strange vacuum of accommodation at the centre, a kind of combination of directness and fatalism from decades of trying to create functioning space in the edge of resources.   The button on the toaster needs to be held down with an elastic band and still the power floats in and out. He shrugs as he watches me struggle with it —  “as soon as you buy anything in Indonesia, it breaks.”

The people who met us at the grotty, tiny stinking airport had nothing marking them as our contacts, didn’t have any English, and it wasn’t until we were transported to the dock for our boat ride across the harbor that we were certain we were in the right vehicle. The jetty was washed away in a monsoon months ago, and we have to wade through the water to get onto the dive boat. The marsh edges right up to our deck, harbor for what feels like dozens of stentorious frogs who start squeaking late afternoon and then thump an escalating drum beat from sundown to light. “Do you suppose they are actually IN the room,” sighs Finch, who never complains about conditions. “I think they’re in the eaves, poised to leap on us.” One night, one actually does.

The sheen of the place is supremely romantic, the mosquito net draped bed comfortable enough, wide enough, the room as breezy as steamy tropics get, the jungle held just at bay behind our bathroom wall.  The hammock on each porch, the cake or banana fritters delivered each afternoon, feel like luxury. The solar panels and constant rain provide an abundance of hot water, so hot that on sunny days we have to resort to the traditional Indonesian method of washing with great scoops of water from a bucket to sluice our delicate sunburns. The mosquitos are mostly at bay, the room constantly simmering with burning coils, the net mostly effective, though I end up with dozens of tiny itchy bites up and down my arms and legs, from some moment of inattentiveness.

We lie under the net, brown and burnt and used up by diving, listening to the calls of the willie wagtails that nest off the dock,  the prehistoric-looking hornbills overhead, the celebratory music for Christmas and new year thundering from the sound system in the nearby village.  Present to now, glad to be with each other, dipped with adventure.


#6 2012.01.06 Keys

A few months ago I had the brainwave that if I just had the teeniest, tiniest little studio space, I could go there to write and think and make images. I got a little corner through Artscape, cheaply, a couple of blocks away. But when I set it up, it was stifingly hot and not very inviting, and then it turns out, I’m Never. Here. I used it once. I decided to close the lease and make it available to some artist who might actually use it, and returned the keys on the 6th.

I seem to do this, jump into things because they might be a good idea, experiment, and then move on. Some of my impulses work out, some veer off, and some are both brilliant and spectacularly expensive. This one, at least, didn’t involve moving all my furniture across the country and back.

#1 – 2012.0101 — Saldi on the boat

Our dive guide Saldi, who was brilliant at finding teeny tiny creatures, like wee nudibranchs and pygmy seahorses, en route to a dive site.

New Year’s Day 2012: 3 dives, gorgeous weather for the first two and torrential rain that later became a gale for the third. Hanging onto a piece of coral 20 m below the surface for about 10 minutes letting waterfalls of fusillier fish cascade around me. Perfection.

Undiscovered Biathletes

I didn’t start running until I was 30, and I didn’t start running on purpose — it was sort of an unexpected side effect of quitting smoking and deciding to move my body more.  I ran around the track once at the gym, tasting it, found I didn’t keel over and die, and three years later, ran a very respectable first marathon.

The huge revelation of the long-distance running epoch in my life (which only lasted about 6 years, until I damaged my knee) was that I was kinda good at it.  Completely inexplicably, I — bookish, non-athletic, one-time-roll-your-own-cigarette-smoker I — was a pretty good long-distance runner, with personal bests that I still don’t quite believe.

(That’s me in the middle, at mile 18 of the Boston Marathon, 11 years ago.  Don’t I look perky?  And THIN?)

I realized then that most of us are probably stuffed with undiscovered talents — it’s just never occurred to us to do the thing that we might have a knack for.  I started thinking of this as the Undiscovered Biathlete Theory — until it occurs to you to cross-country ski hard then drop to your knees and fire a rifle, how do you know that you COULDN’T do it?  (I have a secret belief that I’m secretly quite a good biathlete — if only I’d been born in northern quebec).

Something about that realization cracked open the possibility that I should just keep trying new things.  I took that up with a kind of unplanned momentum after my 15 year relationship ended the year I turned 40.  Somehow, I just started learning as a way of being.

Passing my Open Water certification on the second go last month was the latest, and it prompted me to make a list of the things I’ve learned in the past six years.  Not so much the Great Huge Life Lessons (there are a raspberry bush full of those, some of them still trying to make themselves known — what DID I learn from my abortive, expensive one-year move across the country?) but the kinds of things you can list for other people.

Since I turned 40… scuba diving, snorkeling, using an SLR camera, photoshop, kayak rescue certification, how to ride a road bike (pedal clips and all), how to climb up mountains that scare me.  Urban exploration.

How to read a knitting pattern and knit things other than scarves.

Driving a manual car.

How to shoot a rifle.

(See, that biathlete thing isn’t far away).

Birding and the effective use of binoculars.  A little something about the subculture of birding.

Everything that went into my dissertation, and about 80% of my PhD.

Every single thing I do in my job, about 95% of which is different than how I worked six years ago.

Everything I do in my job related to healthcare and the health system, which I’m now kind of an expert in.

How to travel in African countries on my own.

So many things about working in a different culture where you’re the one with the privilege.

The teeniest, tiniest amount of understanding of the politics and culture of sub-saharan Africa.

How to run an orphanage.

How to get the most out of an aeroplan membership.

How to be in an intimate relationship with someone who lives in another country.  (Apparently I had to learn that not just once, but TWICE).

True collaboration with the best colleague-friends there are.

I had an email exchange about some of this with a friend I met on our Svalbard trip this summer, and she listed her own impressive list.  I knew I liked her for a reason.  We share a philosophy – use the time, and hit the end used up.  (She had a much more colourful metaphor for this).

The Undiscovered Biathlete Theory — what we don’t know YET about ourselves. There are worse frames to be governed by.