Nine Favorite Books from 2015

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. One of the benefits of being a dual citizen of Canada and the United States is that I get to celebrate this holiday twice, in October and November. I’m currently with U.S. friends and family and feeling thankful for them and for you who are reading this post.

This is also a time of year where we start seeing favorite books lists. I’m an avid reader and so thankful for the books in my life. I enjoy looking back to see what books I’ve read during the year and which ones had the most impact.
Here are my top nine books for the year, some on photography and some not, although it all blends together.

1. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer

Dyer describes the friendships between some of history’s greatest photographers and how they influenced each other and developed their own styles. If you’re interested in the history of photography and photographers, you’ll enjoy this book.

Here’s a post I wrote on quotes that stood out to me from this book.

2. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers (including photographers) by Leonard Koren

Wabi-sabi refers to an elusive and elegant beauty. Wabi suggests a beauty of elegant imperfection. Sabi means loneliness or rather aloneness. It also refers to sparseness and austerity. Together, wabi-sabi suggests the beauty of ‘the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.’ ~ Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty

Wabi-sabi is a style that I love to explore in my own photography. This book is a classic and beautiful book on the topic. Read my posts on this book – Wabi-Sabi for Photographers Part 1 and Part 2.

3. The Widening Stream by David Ulrich

Seeing is truly a form of magic, a perceptual pleasure, a source of real learning and questioning, and a doorway to invisible worlds. As adults, we have much to relearn. ~ David Ulrich

David Ulrich is a photographer and I always enjoy his writing. This book is about creativity, written by a photographer, Unique and enlightening.

4. The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

Of course, I’m a fan of stillness, in mind and body. Pico Iyer is a smart man with lots of travel and experience under his belt, yet has such a gentle presence. In this short book, he explores the topic of stillness – how he came to it and how others incorporate it in their lives, from the Tibetan monk, Mathieu Ricard to singer Leonard Cohen.

Watch Iyer’s TED talk on “home” here.

5. and 6. On the Move, a biography by Dr. Oliver Sacks and Townie by Andre Dubus III.

These two are from the autobiography/memoir category and I couldn’t choose between the two of them.

Oliver Sacks is the famed neurologist who wrote this story of his life while dying from cancer. He is one of my heroes, someone who lived life on his own terms, continually evolving and working to the very end.

Townie is the story of Andre Dubus’ life growing up in working class Pennsylvania. It is one of the most well written pieces I’ve ever read and his story stayed with me long after the last pages were turned.

7. Blue Mind, The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water can make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What you Do by Wallace J Nichols

I first heard Wallace J Nichols speak at his alma mater, De Pauw University in Indiana, about his research about and love for sea turtles. I kept up with him and his work over the years and saw him advance to being a vocal advocate for the earth and our oceans. He hands out blue marbles at speaking events to remind people that they live on a planet made up mostly of water.

As someone who relies on the healing aspects of water in all forms, I was intrigued to read this new book on how water affects our minds. Blue Mind is the name he gave to “the human-water connection, a meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”

It’s a fascinating read.

8. A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey towards an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer

Palmer is one of my favourite writers in general, author of many more books that had a huge impact on me, mainly The Courage to Teach (a favourite book in 2011) and Let Your Life Speak.

In this book, he speaks to the human yearning to live undivided lives — lives that are in alignment with our core values. This is not so easy to do in a world that often rewards us for not being who we really are. He describes how to create “circles of trust” or “communities of truth” in our communities, where everyone feels safe to speak and be themselves. We used these principles in the online community for the Visual Journaling workshop.

I wrote more about this book at this post.

9. Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin

On a similar topic, but in a totally different vein, Bill Plotkin speaks of wholeness in terms of the archetypal stages in a human life.

Nature and the Human Soul introduces a visionary ecopsychology of human development that reveals how fully and creatively we can mature when soul and wild nature guide us. Depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin presents a model for a human life span rooted in the cycles and qualities of the natural world, a blueprint for individual development that ultimately yields a strategy for cultural transformation.

Absolutely mind-blowing.

What book had the most impact on you this year?


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Make Meaning in the Moment


The meaning of life is to see. ~ Hui Neng

This is the quote that guides my life. But, what does it mean? Don’t we all see? How can seeing be the meaning of life?

What is the meaning of life, anyways?

This is a question that continues to haunt human beings everywhere. Especially at times of terror and horror, we wonder – what are we here for? Yet, the meaning of life is not something elusive, something we have to search for, something hidden somewhere else that we have to find. It’s not a puzzle to solve.

It’s something we create.

I’m reading a book right now that is transforming me on a cellular level (and I’m only on Chapter 3). It’s called Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul by Stephen Jenkinson. He describes meaning in a way that might help.

Imagine that meaning is decided by how you live and die, while you live and die. Imagine that the meaning of things is itself a made thing and imagine that you can make meaning every day. The crucible for meaning in your life is how you wrestle with the way things are. ~ Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise

This is contemplation – “how you wrestle with the way things are.” Seeing is paying attention to the way things are.

Jenkinson uses the world wrestle in terms of its original meaning, as a sort of choreographed dance. We bring ourselves to what’s happening in the moment and sometimes we struggle with it. We take a closer look, try to understand how it came to be, look at it from many angles and decide how to respond, rather than react.

It’s a dance with life.

This is where meaning is made – in the struggle. We don’t turn away. We may grieve if it’s something difficult but we don’t deny that it’s happening. We’re right in there, dancing.

We make meaning when we let go of things that come to a natural end.

We make meaning when we realize that our words and actions have an impact and then go about helping to shape the kind of world we want to live in.

We make meaning when we tap into the wonder that’s always available to us.

We make meaning by noticing our judgments and limited perspectives and begin to listen.

We make meaning by celebrating the life that we have.

Dorothea Lange said that “the camera is an instrument that teaches us to see without a camera.” I’ve found this to be so true. Photography can be a tool for helping us to see what’s happening in the moment and seeing from many different perspectives.

Our world needs this kind of seeing – a contemplative way of seeing – where we don’t turn away, but see what’s right in front of us. It needs people who pause before reacting, who focus on the truth, see possibilities, and act from a deeper, wiser place.

To see is our true nature. To see is not to grasp a thing, a being, but to be grasped by it. To see is that specifically human capacity that opens one up to empathy, to compassion with all that lives and dies. ~ Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing


The meaning of life is to see and make meaning.


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What’s Essential in Photography and Life?


The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. ~ Hans Hofmann via Brainy Quote

Often heard advice from me – simplify, simplify, simplify. But, how do we know what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary? How do we know what’s essential?

Photography can help us develop this skill. One assignment I often give is to create an image with no more than five elements, where the main subject is clear and all other elements support the subject. In this case, an element can be an object or person or space or colour or line, etc.

Each element is necessary in getting the message across or to provide context or clarity.

I tend to keep my photographs quite simple, so it was difficult to find one that contained even five elements. In the photograph above, I noticed these pumpkins on an outdoor table. They and the leaves on the tree and the ground tell us what time of year it is. This house is on a corner, so I could have included part of the road and sidewalk, but they weren’t necessary to the main subject. I’ve included the pumpkins, the table and chairs, part of the patio and foliage behind, and part of the house for context. Colour is an important part of the image.

The same lessons in simplicity can be applied to our lives. What do we leave in? What do we leave out?

As we we enter this busy time of year, simplicity is needed more than ever. Which is why I offer my Keeping It Simple workshop now. It will begin next Monday, November 16th and run through Saturday, December 13th.

Only two emails per week to help you practice simplicity with your photographs and your life.

Please join us. Learn more and register here.

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