I’ve Looked at Clouds


Clouds’ Illusions

I’d originally planned for today’s post to be about a trip to Chicago this past weekend. And, although I took a few photographs in the windy city, it was the clouds outside the airplane window coming and going that really drew me in.

As you’ll see, the classic Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now (listen below) describes the experience beautifully.

Clouds are endlessly fascinating and especially so from an airplane, where we see them from a different perspective. They’re constantly moving and changing, and so are we. New compositions appear every second.

Going to Chicago on Thursday morning, the view was one of blue skies above fluffy clouds that looked like cotton balls. It felt as if we were bouncing all the way to Chicago, in anticipation of a fun weekend ahead. I felt carefree and relaxed.

“Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I’ve looked at clouds that way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Coming home mid-afternoon on a snowy Sunday, the clouds looked very different, quite mysterious in fact. They were mostly blocking the sun and the blue sky, not fluffy like cotton balls, but more like a soft, snowy landscape.

Amazingly, the second stanza in Both Sides Now fit perfectly.

“But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done,
But clouds got in my way.”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

As we began our descent, down through the clouds and back to reality, I felt as though the clouds were slowly enveloping me (and the airplane). It was time to get my head out of the clouds and start thinking about the practicalities of the week ahead.

Again, Joni speaks to me.

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all”

Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

Joni Mitchell wrote this song as a young, twenty-something woman on the edge of stardom. In this interesting article by Brad Wheeler for the Globe and Mail, he quotes singer-songwriter Catherine MacLellan.

“Both Sides, Now is, at first, a meditation on clouds, the whimsical way a child sees them, as “ice-cream castles in the air,” but there are two sides to everything, and as we mature, we stop seeing clouds for their simple beauty, but as a sign of rain or bad weather. It is like that with all things that seem at first so simple and beautiful, such as love and life. We start out with such natural optimism as children, and then as adults we tend to learn a bitter pessimism or brutal honesty, seeing clouds/life/love for what they are.” – Catherine MacLellan, PEI singer-songwriter

It’s best to be able to see both sides. Listen below.


Related Reading

Cloud Symbolism

Alfred Stieglitz – Clouds as Equivalents

A Short Film Reflection on Clouds from The School of Life


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The Power of Pairs

Last week, I listened to an interview at Jonathan Field’s Good Life Project, with Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of a provocative new book called Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

In the book (which I’m now reading), he explores well known creative partnerships such as Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Jobs and Wozniak. The interview got me thinking about all kinds of partnerships – marriages, friendships, rivalries, etc. – and how people become a part of us, even if they’re no longer physically in our lives.

It also happens that I’m exploring a new partnership, co-creating a workshop with Sally Gentle Drew, which is a whole new area for me, after working on my own for several years now.

Pairs of Wood Knots

But, the reason I’m writing this post is because the other day as I walked on my treadmill in the basement, and looked outside to the window wells framed in wood, I began to see all kinds of pairs of wood knots.

Earlier in the summer, I became fascinated with wood knots on a fence during my daily walk. When I looked back to that photo session, all of the images were of single knots. This time, I was seeing pairs.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that what we see often mirrors something going on inside of us.
What I love about wood knots is how they radiate outwards, affecting their environment. Wood knots are considered imperfections. They show where branches grew from the tree.

The pairs of wood knots that I was seeing were in close proximity, yet each radiated separately. Their rings would overlap or connect in places and sometimes these connections formed a new shape – the essence of creativity.

Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor

The synchronicity continued, when in the process of writing this post, I watched a documentary about photographer, Dorothea Lange (known mostly for her iconic “Migrant Mother” image).

During that film, I learned of her meeting her second husband, Paul Taylor, an agricultural economist. Both had children and were in long-term marriages.

Taylor hired Lange as a photographer for his research on the working conditions of California farm workers. They went into the field together, each bringing very different talents. Paul would interview the workers, trying to get to the heart of their experience. Lange would observe the interviews and bring the words to life through her photographs.

“It was a match made in heaven. because Paul’s work needed this kind of visualization. It allowed Paul to make a much bigger social impact. As for Lange, her understanding of what she was photographing expanded through working with Paul. It was not just individuals she was photographing, but a part of a larger view of American society.”

Taylor and Lange divorced their spouses and married each other. They were together 30 years until her death in 1965 from cancer. Her husband reported that her last words were, “Isn’t it a miracle that it comes at the right time?” His response was that it was the greatest thing in his personal life to live 30 years with a woman like that.


The Power of Two - an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic

Dorothea Lange – Grab a Hunk of Lightning (PBS)

A New Workshop on Visual Journaling (if you’d like to explore how your images mirror what’s inside of you)

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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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Life according to The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (Wikimedia Commons)

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not a literary critic. All I know is that I love Donna Tartt’s writing.

After reading all 770 pages of her recent Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The first half of the book was mesmerizing as I became immersed in the life and drama of young Theo Decker.

The second half of the book was confusing – some plot lines didn’t make sense, Theo’s decisions seemed unrealistic at times, and it even got a little bizarre.

Yet, I couldn’t put the book down. I was rooting for Theo, even if he was no longer such a sympathetic character.

The last ten pages of the book pulled everything together with true words of wisdom, in my opinion.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes from those pages – on art and life.

Note: If you haven’t read the book, these quotes will not give anything away for you.

“If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal,’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Pssst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. An individual heart shock. You see one painting, I see another, the art book puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting car at the museum gift shop sees something else entirely, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time – it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority it will never strike in any deep way at all but – a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours, I was painted for you.”

The same goes for a photograph.

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are. Because – isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture – from William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: Be yourself. Follow your heart.”

Even our mistakes can result in good.

“Life – whatever else it is – is short. Fate is cruel, but maybe not random. Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. Maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping our eyes and hearts open.”

The meaning of life is to see and take in all of it, and making our choices accordingly.

Did you read the Goldfinch? If so, what did you take away from it?


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See You in September


During the month of August, I’ll be taking a break from blogging and my weekly newsletter.

It will be a time to simplify, create, spend time with family and friends. I’ll be wrapping up my Adventures in Seeing workshop and getting ready for a Labor Day weekend on Star Island, New Hampshire.

We all need a break sometimes. Here are some photography ideas for the month.

Susannah Conway’s August Break – Susannah offers a daily photographic prompt (and email) and an opportunity for everyone to share their images.

10 Tips on How to use Photography as a Tool for Personal Development – Catherine Just. I thought the description of her Nap Series, a way to use photography to shed new light on a “problem” is fascinating, and one I will do sometime myself.

* And, check out this post on ideas for photo walks, inspired by the book On Looking.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ― John Lubbock, The Use Of Life

See you in September

Registration is now open for fall workshops – The 50mm Project (September), Keeping It Simple (October) and Going Abstract (November).

I hope you’ll join me for one or more.

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