Cultivate Seeing

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Illustration by Jaykayort

A recent post from Improvised Life used the wonderful phrase, “Practice Looking. Cultivate seeing.” Their example was of looking down and seeing the word “Triumph” etched in the pavement. A jolt, for sure.

I practice looking and seeing with my camera. Here are a few examples I’ve found recently while looking up, looking down or just sitting.

I pass by this wall many times per week, yet have never seen the words etched here. One day, I stopped and sat on a bench across from it, planning to photograph people walking by. Only when I stopped and looked, did I see the words, “Live Free.”

Looking Up

Blue skies, storm clouds, birds, tree tops, wires, rainbows. There’s always something new to see when we look up.

Looking Down

Accidental art, fallen blossoms, textures, and chalk messages are just some of the things you’ll find when you look down.
I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes about looking and seeing.

“Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you.” ― Freeman Patterson


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Ten Books that Shaped Me

This post is inspired by an article from On Being, called What are the Ten Books that have Shaped Your Life?

Most of my 10

Most of my 10

Omid Safi shares his ten and I was struck that I had not read any of the books on his list; only heard of a few of them. No wonder we’re all so different.

Creating and sharing our lists of ten is a good way to expand our self-awareness and discover new books to read. I hope you’ll share your list with me.

Below are my ten and I probably could’ve added several more. While a few are classics, most are not literary or earth-shattering – they just arrived at the right time. In several cases, they were the first of many books read by that author.

The list is in chronological order, according to when I read them.

1. Masquerade at the Ballet – Lorna Hill

I read this book, about two cousins who long for each other’s very different lives, when I was around ten years old. And, I still have it! It inspired me to honour my own dreams, rather than the expectations of others.

Here’s the last line:

“It’s funny,” Jane said with a yawn, “but years ago, before I came to London, I stood at my window – your window now, Mariella, and I turned my back on the hills and moors and I remember saying very distinctly: I’m going to dance! I’m going to be a dancer! And, now look at me. I am!”


2. Love is Eternal – Irving Stone

Irving Stone’s historical novels brought history alive for me during my teenage years.

My favourite by far was this one, about Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln. She suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, and their relationship was challenging to say the least. The title, Love is Eternal, says it all.  These two were devoted to each other, despite the challenges.

The quote below was on my dresser for many, many years. It’s served me well in my own long-term relationship.

“She must always remember that: love ebbed and flowed, now rich and shining, now shabby and disconsolate. One must survive the bad in order to realize the good. Therein lay the miracle of love, that it could eternally recreate itself. She must always be dedicated, no matter what the years held, what the hardships or disappointments, the sorrows or tragedies: she must come through them all, through the most violent and frightening storms; for at the other end, no matter how long it might take or how dark the passage, one could emerge into clear warm sunlight.” ― Irving Stone, Love is Eternal


3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

My favourite book of all time, this is a philosophical meditation on quality and our ingrained habit of thinking dualistically, told through the guise of a father/son motorcycle trip.

It’s a classic – one of the most influential books ever. I re-read it every ten years or so and get something new every time. There are so many great quotes from this book that it’s hard to pick just one, but here’s one that has special meaning for me today.

“We get blocked from our own creativity because we just repeat what we have already heard. Until we really look at things and see them freshly for ourselves, we will have nothing new to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see.”


4. Bring Me a Unicorn – Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Most people know of Anne Morrow Lindbergh as the wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh and author of Gift from the Sea, her most well known book. But, she was also a pilot, a prolific writer, and someone who endured the agonizing and very public kidnapping and murder of her young son.

During my university years, my roommate Carolyn and I read many volumes of Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries and letters. The first was this one, Bring Me a Unicorn, which covered the years 1922 through 1928 – as a young adult (daughter of an ambassador) who wanted to write, and who then met and became engaged to one of the most famous men of the time.

We found her letters and diary entries to be very real, heart-wrenching and beautifully written.

“Don’t wish me happiness — I don’t expect to be happy; it’s gotten beyond that, somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humour — I will need them all.”


5. The Road Less Travelled – M. Scott Peck

Through my 20’s and 30’s, I read every book by M. Scott Peck. I still have most of them. But, the first and most influential was The Road Less Travelled, which begins “Life is difficult.” This was quite possibly my first psychology or self-help book.

At the time, it provided many insights on living as a mature adult and how to handle the difficulties that arise. Here is one passage I marked:

“The entirety of one’a adult life is a series of personal choices – decisions. If they can accept this totally, then they become free people. To the extent they do not accept this, they will forever feel themselves victims.”


6. Shadowlight – Freeman Patterson

Canadian photographer, Freeman Patterson, started me on the road to seeing. Everything I’ve done with photography stems from the first workshop I attended with him in 2001.

Shadowlight is a memoir of sorts and explains Patterson’s philosophy around photography and how it developed. I purchased a large print of the image that’s on the cover of this book and it’s framed and hanging in my living room, a constant reminder to “see the light” and pay homage to Freeman.

In reviewing some of the passages I highlighted in the book, I discovered this:

“I have long assumed that the fundamental reason anybody enrols in a workshop of any sort is to improve the quality of his or her life. Photography (dance, writing, hockey) is a passport, a means to achieving this greater end. So, while ostensibly people come to improve their visual and photographic skills, a good teacher not only will endeavour to help them learn what they want to know, but also will be cognizant of the deeper reasons for their being there.”


7. The Zen of Seeing – Frederick Franck

Another mentor in seeing is the artist, writer and activist, Frederick Franck. He was not a photographer, and actually strongly felt that the camera got in the way of seeing. For him, drawing was the portal for seeing.

This book, The Zen of Seeing, is a classic from the 1970’s for artists of all kinds.

“Everyone thinks he knows what a lettuce looks like. But, start to draw one and you realize the anomaly of having lived with lettuces all your life but never having seen one, never having seen the semi-translucent leaves curling in their own lettuce way, never having noticed what makes a lettuce rather than a curly kale. I am not suggesting that you draw each nerve, each vein of each leaf, but that you feel them being there. What applies to lettuces, applies equally to the all-too-familiar faces of husbands … wives …”


8. Women Who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

This essential book for women (and the men who love them), was published in 1992, but I did not read it until at least ten years later.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a gifted and authentic woman. This book was another reminder to follow my heart and instincts, not what was expected by others. It showed me the ways in which I was holding back.

She says this about “wild” women:

“The world ‘wild’ here, is not used in its modern pejorative sense, meaning out of control, but in its original sense, which means to live a natural life, one in which the creature has innate integrity and healthy boundaries.”


9. The Seven Story Mountain – Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was a contemplative Trappist monk, who became famous for his writings, poetry and photography. He was equally at home with the solitude of his hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as he was in dialogue with leaders of eastern religions. The Seven Story Mountain is one of his earliest and most well-known books. It tells the story of his upbringing and eventual conversion to Catholicism.

I relate to Merton on so many levels. My first contemplative photography workshop was held just down the road from the Abbey where Merton lived.

“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others.” Epilogue, p. 458


10. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom – John O’Donohue

John O’Donohue appeals to my Celtic heart. He was an Irish poet and writer about Celtic wisdom and spirituality; with writing so graceful and rhythmic that it’s like a dance.

I’ve also read several of O’Donohue’s books, but Anam Cara (meaning “soul friend”) was the first.

“Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul.” ― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Find most of these books at my Amazon Store.

I hope this inspires you to do the exercise yourself. And, please share it with me.


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Inspired by … Sue Folinsbee

Every time I finish a workshop, I marvel at the people who are a part of them – thoughtful and kind, as well as excellent photographers in their own right. They all seem to have a thirst to continue to grow and evolve, and to do it with others.

This is the second post where I feature some of these wonderful people on this blog – to show you their work, and allow them to tell their photography story.

Meet Sue Folinsbee

Sue is from Toronto and I first came to know her at an in-person workshop right here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Sue had recently participated in a workshop with one of my mentors, Freeman Patterson.

Sue has since been a part of all of my online workshops, some more than once. She has the distinction of being the first to post images from Nunavut (one of Canada’s territories). As you’ll find out below, Sue does work in Nunavut and it is one of her favourite places in the world. All of the images in this post are from that place.

I had the privilege of attending the exhibit Sue had of her Nunavut images in Toronto. She is a sweet and sensitive soul and I know you will enjoy getting to know her better, as I have.

Snow shapes in Iqaluit

Snow shapes in Iqaluit

How and when did you get started in photography and what drew you to this medium?

I have always been involved in creative endeavours mainly abstract acrylic painting and collage. My involvement and interest in photography happened quite suddenly. I still remember the day in December 2007. My cousin suggested I try his Nikon Coolpix point and shoot camera. We were up at our cottage and I took dozens of pictures of the black lines against white snow on our lake which was not completely frozen over.

I was completely captivated. The lines on the lake reminded me of an alien runway. I bought my own camera the next week and have never looked back.

For a time, I tried to integrate photographic images into my paintings but I finally decided a few years ago that I wanted to put all my efforts into photography as my greater passion was there.

Snow Patterns

Snow Patterns

Describe your evolution as a photographer. Who are your mentors?

I would have to say that my evolution as a photographer revolves around growing in the “art of seeing.”

When I first started, I focused my photography on the obvious. For example, at our cottage I kept taking the same kinds of pictures of the lake and our property. They were snapshots really and I was feeling bored because I couldn’t see further than that.

Through continuous learning with my courses and practice, I feel that I am learning to ”see” better and can find less obvious images that attract me everywhere. Sometimes I have to be careful because I see too much now especially when I am driving.

I would say that my greatest mentor is Freeman Patterson. I was reading his books intently years before I actually met him and took one of his workshops. Through Freeman, I learned about André Gallant and his work. I find that you and the other participants in the courses I take with you are also mentors. I learn so much.

Miqquet Program participant and Rock Drawings, Rankin Inlet

Miqquet Program participant and Rock Drawings, Rankin Inlet

Why do you photograph and what types of subjects are your favourites?

Photography for me is both a meditation and a spiritual practice. I receive great joy as much in the process as I do in the final product. Having photography in my life makes me slow down and always provides me with something to look forward to. I find I get great insights into life through photography that I would otherwise not have.

I try to get out every day or couple of days to engage in photography. When I am home in Toronto or at the cottage some of my favourite subjects are chipped paint, pavement designs, detritus, leaves, dead flowers, any kind of reflections, and even garbage. I am really beginning to appreciate making images in the “urban jungle” in the heart of the city.

I also love to make abstract painterly like images out of anything that might be around me at the time.

Rocking Horse Iceberg

Rocking Horse Iceberg

Tell us about how your Nunavut series developed and what Nunavut and the images mean to you.

For over seven years now I have travelled in different parts of Nunavut in my work in adult education with a literacy organization called Ilitaqsiniq. I take photographs whenever I can when I am not working.

Nunavut is a very special place of great learning for me especially in the spiritual realm and the reinforcement of important life lessons. Everything about Nunavut has a haunting beauty and meaning for me. My work there coincided with my interest in photography. I love to take pictures of the land, the snow, rocks, old boats, icebergs and aspects of Inuit culture (like drying skins) that are a wonder to me.

More recently, I have been taking pictures of people in the programs I work with in Nunavut. This has stretched me and got me out of my comfort zone. At the urging of my career transitions coach, I had a show this year highlighting my Nunavut images with a special focus on a program I had worked with.

The Miqqut Program focused on traditional sewing while embedding literacy and essential skills. I included images of the women and their instructors from the program modeling the beautiful clothes they had made with such pride and confidence.

Where can we find your work online?

The easiest way to find my work is through my website.

Thank you, Sue!

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