Hidden Wholeness

Parker Palmer (writer, educator, and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal) and Thomas Merton (contemplative monk, write, photographer, and activist) are two people who have inspired me by the way they live(d) their lives.

Merton is the author of this quote: “There is in all things … a hidden wholeness.”

He strived to bring out this hidden wholeness in his life and through his photographs.

Parker Palmer wrote a book called A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life.

“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life” ― Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

In this article, A Friendship, A Love, A Rescue, Palmer describes four key teachings he learned from Merton. They are summarized below and illustrated with my photographs.

1. The Quest for True Self


iron rust wikipedia

True Self

“Most of us,” as Merton brilliantly observed, “live lives of self-impersonation.” I cannot imagine a sadder way to die than with the sense that I never showed up here on earth as my God-given self. If Merton had offered me nothing else, the encouragement to live from true self would be more than enough to call his relation to me “a friendship, a love, a rescue.” ~ Parker Palmer


2. The Promise of Paradox



Embracing Brokenness

“Paradoxical thinking is key to creativity, which comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” ~ Parker Palmer


3. The Call to Community



Community of Solitudes

“For the next eleven years, I shared a daily round of worship, study, work, social outreach, and communal meals with some seventy people in a spiritually-grounded community that was as close as I could get to my image of the life Merton lived. That image was of a “community of solitudes,” of “being alone together,” of a way of life in which a group of people could live more fully into Rilke’s definition of love: “that two (or more) solitudes border, protect and salute one another.”” ~ Parker Palmer


4. Hidden Wholeness in a Broken World


tree stump design

Hidden Wholeness

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturals.” ~ Thomas Merton

I highly recommend any book by Parker Palmer – especially A Hidden Wholeness, The Courage to Teach, and Let Your Life Speak.

My Thomas Merton Recommendations

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Transformed by the Moment

A couple of weeks ago, I saw the movie, Boyhood, which recently won the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture. The movie was filmed over twelve years and follows the life of Mason as he grows from a boy to an adult. It shows how life is a process of co-creation. At the end of the movie, one of the characters says to Mason,

“You know how everyone says to seize the moment? I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around – the moment seizes us.” And Mason says, “Yeah. It’s constant, the moments. It’s always right now.”

I’m one of those that thought this movie was beautiful and the ending has stayed with me and inspired this post, about letting the moment transform us. But first, some thoughts about culture and openness.

Culture – a Definition from Merriam-Webster Online

: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

Culture, like everything else, is always changing, although some parts change slower than others.

While culture is useful as an organizing principle, it can be limiting if too fixed. It can too strictly define what is socially acceptable.It can create boxes that limit possibilities.

Our current culture encourages us to take charge of our lives – be the change, seize the moment, live our best lives!

Yet this mindset can be self-defeating when it doesn’t take into account the flip side – that we have little control. We are acted on by other forces and can easily be deflated when our best laid plans or intentions don’t come to fruition the way we expected.

This where the contemplative habit of openness comes in. And, openness is counter-cultural.


Openness teaches us to expect surprises. It shows us how to be resilient when unexpected circumstances arise. It encourages us to let go of outcomes and let our experiences change us.

As Amy Poehler advises in her bestseller, Yes Please, we have to “surf our life.”

We have the ability to transform the world by our words, actions, and creations, yet the world is also transforming us at the same time.

Our most transformative moments or experiences come unexpectedly, as beautifully described by Rebecca Solnit.

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?” ~ Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost via BrainPickings

Photography as Transformative

The act of taking a picture with our cameras is a metaphor for this way of being. The photographer’s role in “creating” an image is usually emphasized, but I see the process of photographing as an encounter.

The photographer brings to the image all of his or her previous experiences, memories, thoughts. Something in the environment catches his or her attention and there is resonance. The photograph comes from this moment of resonance or connection and the photographer (and hopefully, the viewer) is changed by the experience.

Patricia Turner delves into this idea of receiving a picture rather than taking it in this post.

P1150492This theme kept hitting home with me over the past week – through an article by Tara Mohr, a sign in a store window, and a video by Marie Forleo.

Tara Mohr talks about how the life-changing experience of motherhood is rewriting her. There are many life-changing experiences that do this – some chosen and some not.

Education rewrites us. A serious illness rewrites us. Marriage rewrites us. Living in a new place rewrites us. Books rewrite us. And, for sure, parenthood rewrites us.

The Vince Lombardi quote (to your right), which I saw in a store window, is another way of saying the same thing.

Marie Forleo continues the message in her audaciously contemplative way, when she says to bring your A-game – your attention, enthusiasm, love to each moment, no matter where you are, who you’re with, or what you’re doing. She says to make is-ness your business. Engage fully with the moment (put a ring on it).

Sometimes, it can seem like we have no control, that life is transforming us in ways that are overwhelming. Yet, we always have a choice in how we respond, as Parker Palmer reminds us.

“We are constantly co-creating the world, so we need not be victims of it.” ~ Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

I was transformed, unexpectedly, by the movie Boyhood.

Has a moment seized and transformed you recently?


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How is your seeing maturing?


“To see a world in a drain is grand.”

I’ve enjoyed articles by Robert Hecht in the past, and recently discovered this one – The Maturation of Individual Seeing, originally published in LensWork Magazine.

He ponders William Blake’s poem about seeing the world in a grain of sand, and wonders if, as photographers, we can touch the infinite in just about anything – humorously adding the subtitle “to see a world in a drain is grand.”

He inspired me to spend some time photographing the drain in my bathroom sink (see above).

I hope you’ll read the entire article about his maturation of seeing over 30 years of photographing. His stages (all necessary) are summarized below.

* emulating admired photographers

* striving to become technically proficient

* producing perfect and beautiful landscape images

At this point, he felt a little emptiness in his photography and moved on to the next step.

* seeing beauty, rather than looking for beautiful subjects

“I believe now that my growth has involved a subtle, yet profound, shift from perceiving beauty as something outside of myself, as separate from myself, to that of experiencing it internally, as fully integrated within my self and my values. I had been mistakenly looking for beautiful subjects, for things that were already dazzling and amazing.”

They key, he says, is being more present and having fewer preconceptions about what to photograph. This opens up possibilities for photographic subjects exponentially.

I can relate to several of these stages, although I’ve never mastered taking perfect landscape images!

Learning to photograph anywhere not only opens up possibilities, it expands our definition of beauty. I’ve found that I see beauty where many don’t. To me, that’s a good thing since it greatly increases my appreciation for life. On the flip side, it also makes me feel greater sadness when I see things dismissed, unappreciated or not cared for.

By sharing the beauty we see through the lens of our camera, we help others to see in new ways.

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is…” ~ Marcel Proust via The Improvised Life

For me, another stage has been the exploration of abstract photography, and how colour and design can express beauty and emotions. My current stage is exploring the psychological aspects of photography, or what our photographs have to say about us.

It’s a fascinating, evolving journey, is it not? Can you relate to some of these stages?

See Robert Hecht’s Still Life gallery here.

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Bringing Purposeful Practice to Photography

Recently, I read a fascinating book by Matthew Syed, called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success (unless otherwise stated, all quotes below are from the book).

Syed was a top-ranked table tennis player and is now a journalist. Using performance psychology and cognitive neuroscience, he studied some of the most successful sports figures, artists, and musicians to determine that purposeful practice (and other factors such as access to training, good teachers, etc.) are more important than talent in explaining their success.

In other words, it takes more than the time put in (10,000 hours, for example). It’s the quality of that time and what we learn from it that matters most.

“The application of purposeful practice can enable countless individuals to realize untapped potential. Everyone has the capacity for excellence with the right opportunities and training.”

How can we bring purposeful practice to photography?


I believe that, through specific purposeful practices, we can improve our photographic skills, discover our vision, and gain even greater satisfaction from our photography.

1. Take more time before clicking the shutter.

“Mere experience, if it is not matched by deep concentration, does not translate into excellence.”

The shutter on our camera makes it way too easy to lift and click, without really thinking about what we’re photographing. If we spend more time looking, noticing, and seeing before clicking, we’ll not only see more deeply, our photographs will better reflect what we see.

Patricia Turner calls this visual listening.

This is not as easy as it sounds. Being too quick to click is a habit that is hard to break. It’s something I constantly struggle with. This post on Medium – How to Pay Attention – has some wonderful applications for photography.
2. Reflect on what you see.


Moving Reflections

Neither length of time photographing, number of pictures taken, or gear will necessarily make us better photographers. Rather, the best photographers – the ones that create images that make us feel something – are self-aware.

They notice what draws their attention, reflect on what they see, and ask why. They identify the story or the concept or the emotion behind the image. This can be done immediately before (preferably) or afterwards.
3. Write about your photographs.


Celebrate – Dance – Reach – Bend – Hope

Taking the reflection one step further, spend some time writing about an image – it’s qualities, emotional impact, the story behind it.

Notice the visual elements and how they contribute to the effectiveness of the image. What works and what doesn’t?

Choose a title that doesn’t just say what it is, but the meaning behind it. This year for every image I post, I’m going to write in the image description five qualities that stand out for me.
4. Examine your body of work to uncover themes and patterns.


Yin and Yang

We all see differently. We all bring our knowledge, expertise, experiences and feelings to our photographs.

This was the premise of the fabulous book, On Looking, where the author Alexandra Horowitz went on walks with experts in different areas, and they all saw differently, according to their expertise.

“Knowledge is embedded in perception.”

Matthew Syed says that “perception is what happens when our knowledge and physical vision intersect.” Examining our body of work for themes and patterns will help us to identify our unique vision.

Photographer John Kosmopoulos says that we develop our photographic vision through the combination of physical vision and psychological vision (metaphorical, symbolic, autobiographical).

“What and how we take a photograph becomes secondary to why we choose to make a photograph the way we do. If we answer the why, we understand the psychology behind the photo much better.” ~ Vision Drawing – A new Psychology of Photography by John Kosmopoulos

We can get to know the why by identifying how our past experiences influence what we see, as well as the underlying (and possibly unconscious) metaphors and symbols. This is the premise behind the new visual journaling workshop coming up in March.
5. Always be learning something new.


Store Window Reflection – The Eyes Have It

“Purposeful practice is about striving for what is just out of reach and not quite making it. Excellence is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavour, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundation of necessary failure.”

This is true feedback.

With photography, as with most worthwhile endeavours, we’re never quite there. There is always more to learn. Trying anything new, like street photography for example or photographing in your own backyard, or experimenting with a new setting on our camera, pushes us out of our comfort zone, and leads to more creative responses. Failures and difficulties are seen as part of the growth process.

A new subject matter – store window reflections – captivated me last year and still does. It requires an entirely new way of seeing and is not easy to create effective images. It’s a project in process for me.
6. Surround yourself with inspiring colleagues.


Star Island Crew

Take a class or workshop (in-person or online) that has a community aspect. Join a photography club or online forum. Read articles by photographers you admire. I’m betting that most of you reading this already have this one down.

Surrounding ourselves with people who inspire and materials to help us learn will keep us moving forward.

Where do you most need to incorporate purposeful practice in your photography this year?


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Devotion – my word for 2015

Happy New Year’s Day, 2015! For the next year, the word that will be my mantra is “devotion.”

Devotion means “profound dedication; consecration; earnest attachment to a cause, person, project, etc.” (Dictionary.com)

It’s often associated with religious observance or prayer, or an attitude towards someone you love. But, as the definition above says, it can also be applied to anything – a cause, a project, work, or play.

Devotion is about where we place our loving and focused attention.

For me, devotion is about making the best use of my time, financial resources, and energy to bring about a purpose of teaching about and modelling contemplative living through photography. For 2015, I will be devoted to the following:

* Leisure – which is much more related to contemplation than I ever imagined.

“Leisure … is not the privilege of those who can afford to take time; it is the virtue of those who give to everything they do the time it deserves to take.” ~ David Steindl-Rast via Brain Pickings

In 2015, I will be devoted to giving everything I do a sense of leisure (or play). That means reining in my impatience when my dog just wants to sniff along the street in front of my house. It means opening up my senses while cooking and cleaning and running errands. It means simplifying my life, so that my days are spent doing what’s important for me and for the world.

* Contemplation – or, considering with attention, can only happen when we bring this attitude of leisure to everything we do. To me, it’s the only way to live because it leads to presence, appreciation, and a clear picture of what’s needed.

Read: How to Know If You’re Contemplative.

IMG_6252* Going to the Edge – where serendipity, creativity, and awe live (thanks to Jason Silva). This means making connections, getting out of my comfort zone, and always trying new things.

* Vulnerability – because it’s what gives wholeness to life. If you haven’t yet seen Brene Brown’s TED talk on this subject, please do so now.

I’m devoted to exploring my inner world for greater emotional and self-awareness. I hope to discover untapped potential and what continues to hold me back.

* Photography as Therapy – which is my passion. I’m utterly devoted to my daily photo walks, and exploring what my camera teaches and shows me about contemplation and living a life of adventure.

This year, I’ll be devoted to the practice of visual journaling, resulting in a greater understanding of what and why I photograph, and uncovering themes and patterns in my photography.

* Workshops – are my passion because I get to meet the most interesting people. I’ll continue to give everything I have to each workshop, no matter how many times it’s been offered. I’ll continue to tweak each one with new information and inspiration. I’ll follow my intuition to create new workshops and collaborations.

By the way, Adventures in Seeing starts in four days!

* Personal Projects – This year the projects I’ll be devoted to include visual journaling, exploring archetypes through mandalas, writing a book on seeing, and creating a portfolio of abstract images of my hometown.

* Relationships – which are the foundation of life and require time and attention. In 2015, I will make time and pay attention to the people that are most important to me, because it’s what makes life worth living.

* Health – makes everything else possible. In 2014, I started to run/walk and learned what my body needs as fuel to feel its best (read Grain Brain or watch the documentary, Fed Up to learn more). I’m devoted to paying attention to what my body is telling me, which at this point means more stretching and strength training.

* You – the readers of this blog and participants in workshops, continue to motivate and inspire me. You make this work/play a joy. I’m devoted to you. So, if there’s something you need that you think I could provide through my work, please let me know.

Is there a word that will guide you this year?

Who got me started on devotion? Alexandra Franzen (a free worksheet and an e-book of essays).

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Writing about your Photographs

“I realized that learning to comment on my work not only made my work more effective but it also helped me understand my work better and solve certain creative challenges. In fact, I realized that there are many types of writing and many uses for writing. Writing is now an integral part of my creative process from start to finish. Making the Visual Verbal is a useful skill that can benefit everyone, including you.” ~ John Paul Caponigro via Scott Kelby

In my workshops, I encourage participants to write about their photographs in the image description – what they saw, how it made them feel, and how they composed accordingly.

This is not easy to do.

So, I was intrigued when I saw the 1K Photography Blogging Challenge at Photography Marketing Masters. Nigel Merrick says that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then we should be able to write a thousand words about them.

I decided to take the challenge with the image below, taken on a trip to Newfoundland earlier this year. Now, let me first say that writing does not come easy for me and I’m a woman of few words in person and on paper. After several attempts, I still haven’t been able to get to the 1,000 word mark; I’m at just over 700.

However, it was a very worthwhile exercise and I wanted to let you know about it in case you wanted to give it a try. You can even submit your writing to Nigel’s blog.


Tilting, Fogo Island, Newfoundland

We woke to the coldest day of the trip so far, and dense fog too. Even though it was late June, we knew that the weather could be unpredictable on this island of rock in the Atlantic Ocean.

I was on a long-awaited trip with two long-time friends to the only province in Canada I’d not yet visited – Newfoundland. One of my friends has family ties there and had spent time working on Fogo Island, where we were staying.

She was our guide and insisted on visiting the town of Tilting, which is a National Historic Site. That’s where we were headed that cool morning. We put on our layers, gloves and hats and set out in the car for the twenty minute drive.

Newfoundland has a strong Irish and fishing heritage. A few hundred years ago, Europeans made seasonal trips across the pond to fish for cod. Eventually, many of those Europeans migrated to Newfoundland (a British colony at the time) to fish year-round.

“It was fish that brought Europeans to Newfoundland, it was fish that dictated the pattern of their settlement, and it was the catching, salting, drying and marketing of fish that laid down the forms and structures of the society they built.” ~ Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage

Fishing was a way of life for Newfoundlanders for hundreds of years until a moratorium on cod fishing began in 1992, due to the overfishing of the area. While fishing is still part of the Newfoundland economy, it is no longer a growing industry.

Tilting was one of the first places where migratory fishermen stopped. It became a mostly Irish settlement and is home to possibly the oldest exclusively Irish cemetery in North America.

Our first stop at Tilting was at this rocky bay. The fog was still thick and the town seemed frozen in time. Since being named a historic site, many of the old buildings and red fishing “stages” have been restored.

These “stages” are where the fish are processed for salting and drying, and they are prevalent throughout the province. The fog showcased them beautifully. I wondered if they were painted red for this very reason, to be seen in the often foggy days from the fishing boats.

I was struck by how the restored building was surrounded by symbols of decay – the two upside-down fishing boats and the snow fence. I composed so that the “fishing stage” was in the upper right third of the frame, on a diagonal, so that the two upside down boats formed a triangle with the building. The eye is led around this triangle, and not out of the frame, giving a sense of stillness rather than movement. If I were to compose differently, I would probably pull back a little, leaving a little more space around the triangle, especially on the left side.

I loved how the boats were left out in the yard to decay. They symbolize the old way of life, and act as a kind of memorial to days gone by, even though time marches on. They had a sense of dignity to them.

The foggy background gives context – the bay, the rock, a weathered and broken down fence, and the small homes of the town of Tilting – yet, being veiled somewhat, they take a back seat to the building and the boats. I wondered who still lived in this town and what they did for a living.

Outside of the frame were well-preserved saltbox homes, the Irish cemetery, and a small museum (with no one in attendance), open to anyone who passed by. We wandered around a pebble beach and looked for heart-shaped stones. We saw a farm with horses and snowmobiles in the yard. There were very few people out on this chilly morning, although we did meet one man named Foley. That name goes back to the original settlers in this area, and there is an operating Bed and Breakfast Inn called Foley’s Place.

The serenity, the beauty, and the history of this place was breathtaking. And, the cool air literally made me catch my breath as I stood on the rocks at the edge of the bay.

All in all, this was one of my favourite images from the trip because it points to the essence of Newfoundland in one tiny frame – the ruggedness of the rocky land and the people, the reliance on water and fish, and the preservation of the past and a simpler way of life.


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