Category: places


shutter

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

Photo Credit: James F. Cline III; Licence: Public Domain

National Geographic today released the results of their 2013 World Photo Press Contest, which awards news photographers for astounding work completed in the previous year.  It’s well worth a gander.

I was so struck by some of the photographs that I knew instantly I had to write something about it.  If you’re a writer — and by “writer,” I don’t mean that you have something published, or that you’re recognized for your writing, but simply that, when you are moved by something, you know that you will be restless until you can write about it — you will know that sometimes there is an irrepressible imperative to share your thoughts with the world by writing them.  My first thought looking at the photographs was that they made me feel grateful for many things.  My second thought was that I’ve written about all of those things in other posts, so it would be cheating to say I’m thankful for them again (even though I am continually grateful for them).

Some of the feelings of gratitude the photographs elicited?

Let’s start with the first photograph in the series, taken by Paul Hansen, and which won First Prize.  Moving in a most breathtakingly devastating way, it depicts family members carrying two Palestinian children to their funeral after they were killed when an Israeli missile struck their home.

Nothing but nothing makes me feel more helpless than when children die.  Nothing but nothing makes me more furious than when children are the victims of violence.  But I also feel gratitude.  I am chilled at the thought of losing my child to something so senseless, and I am so profoundly thankful that I live somewhere that is not war-ravaged.  This isn’t to delude myself into a false sense of security.  Who knows what the future holds?  The parents of the children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut thought their kids were safe too.  But, still: it stands to reason that, when missiles are flying around your ears, people are going to get hurt, and eventually those people are going to be children.

But I’ve already talked about my appreciation for my safety and the safety of my family.

Let’s look next at Second Prize winner in the News Single category.  This photograph, snapped by a very brave Emin Özmen, depicts a man being tortured by Syrian Opposition Fighters by, I gather, having his feet whipped, for being a suspected government informant.  I can’t fathom the searing pain he must have experienced.  I am so grateful that I live in a country where torture is illegal, and where it is not so commonplace that torturers seem to have no problem with being photographed doing it.

But I’ve already written about my gratitude for the country in which I live and the basic human rights which that country protects.

I’m moved too by the First Prize winner in the Contemporary Issues Single category.  Photographed by Micah Albert, the picture shows a Kenyan woman taking a break from her labour picking through trash at a dump near the slums where she lives.  She’s sitting, reading through a book she found at the dump.  I live in such a wasteful culture, and we dissociate ourselves from the waste so easily because we’ve worked out this great system where we ship it off and hide it in giant landfills.  The concept of someone making a living from picking through garbage is a pure testament to so much of what is wrong with the world.

But I’ve already mentioned by thankfulness for having a meaningful job, and my gratefulness for having so many luxuries and amenities in life.  I’ve even expressed gratitude for books.

I think the most astounding of all of the photographs in the series is one by Fausto Podavini which claimed First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category.  It shows Mirella, a 71-year-old Italian woman, assisting her husband Luigi — who has dementia — drying off after a shower.  I am so thankful that I have the full capacity of my mind, and thankful too for the ones who love us and take care of us even when we have lost so much of who we are.

But I’ve already discussed my gratitude for family and those who stick with us through thick and thin.  I’ve expressed thankfulness for my health.

I find the photographic talent represented by this series of award winners to be mesmerizing.  They haven’t just snapped a picture: they’ve captured a moment.  It is their work that has helped me revisit and remember so many of the things that make me a lucky person each day.

And so, although it seems inadequate or trivial given the content of the photographs I’ve shared, today I am thankful for photography and photographers.  I would have such little insight into what goes on in the world — both the heinous and the beautiful — if it weren’t for the fact that those things have been brought to my doorstep through the efforts of others in capturing those realities and bringing them to my doorstep.

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the new world

passenger ship

Photo Credit: Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

I was on an ancestry kick several months ago.  Ancestral research is a difficult process made infinitely easier by services such as ancestry.com, which permitted me to research my family history in my pajamas.  And if that isn’t the very definition of progress, I don’t know what is.  I was also helped along by my poor grandmother, who did all of her family research before the advent of online ancestry databases.  Without her immense initial effort, I never would have gotten anywhere.

For some, researching family history has been simple.  In one line on my father’s side of the family, I’ve gotten as far back to the 17th century with nary a bead of sweat on my brow.  My grandmother’s paternal line, on the other hand, has been a thorny maze fraught with dead ends.  Her father seemed to have a penchant for adventure (read: trouble).  He changed his name, and his life before moving from England to Canada is shrouded in mystery.

After a month of solid research, during which I spent almost every waking second not otherwise absorbed by obligation poring through records, I finally had to shut it all down.  I am highly obsessive.  Faced with a problem, I’ll skip meals and sleep in an effort to reach an answer.  I was very literally exhausted.

But the process was not without reward.  The beauty of ancestral research is not only that it tells you something about yourself, but it also gives you a glimpse of history in a personal way.  Though I am cognizant of the class system in England, both now and — more prominently — in the 19th century and earlier, seeing that my ancestors were lower-class labourers opened my eyes to how fortunate I am to live where and when I do.

Today, I am thankful for living in a society that ascribes greater value to determination and ability than it does to birth.

My parents and I have all had the benefit of a university education.  If you told my great-great-grandfather, who was a coachman and domestic servant, that his great-grandson (my father) would be a university-graduated accountant, he would have laughed.  There was virtually no opportunity in his day for anyone to rise above the limitations of their birth.

How incandescent my ancestors must have felt, travelling by ship across the dark waters of the North Atlantic.  Crammed into third class accommodations, the journey must have seemed endless, but on the other side of that horizon stood a new world, laden with possibility.

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

nature

Last week, we were camping in Algonquin Park, part of a vacation we take each year at the beginning of August.  Nestled in a transition zone between the rugged landscape characteristic of northern Ontario, and the more plateaued and agricultural south, it is an ideal spot to see many different ecosystems up close, working together in picturesque harmony (as nature has a knack for doing).

Algonquin Provincial Park

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

The park is known for its wealth of interpretive programs which educate visitors about the diversity of organisms that inhabit the area.  Zachary is a bit too young for some of it, but I love watching Gregory lap up the information, ask questions, learn.  One year, he developed a fascination for fungi.  While on trails, we had to stop every time we came upon a mushroom to look it up in our field guide.  Hikes took twice as long as usual, but I was delighted to see him take such an interest.

For me, the draw of Algonquin is in the opportunity to break away from the bustle and noise of populous cities and be in a place where the loudest sound one typically hears is the eerie howl of wolves in the moonlight, or the haunting, mournful call of a loon.  Within minutes of entering the park, I can feel tension disappear from my neck and shoulders, and my heart beats a little bit more slowly.

Alongside hikes, our favourite activity while visiting Algonquin is canoeing out into the rustic interior, a section of the park unsullied by vehicles or nearly any other vestige of civilization.  Time stops, the air is fragrant, and there is almost nothing to see but the illimitable wilderness before us.

Later, by night, far away from the light pollution of cities, the stars of the Algonquin sky are innumerable.

Today, I am thankful for nature, and for the sheer vastness of untouched wilderness in this spacious continent on which I live.

What is your experience of nature?  Share it with me in the comments.

tongues

I took a couple of linguistics classes in University and they nearly slayed me with ennui.  And I’m the type of person who loves doing a lot of things that other people find agonizing: reading law, discussing grammar, filling out surveys, memorizing things (just for the heck of it).  Give me a statistics formula to sink my teeth into and I’m a happy man.

My issue with linguistics was that it took what was, at essence, a really deliciously messy topic and boiled it down to a science, scrubbing it clean with words that sounded like they were made up just to annoy me (agglutinative, antonomasia, litotes…).  It’s like when your Mom has some sort of departure from her senses and encourages you to play in the mud.  It takes all the fun out of it.

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place

Today, I am thankful for that place.

Bear with me here while I try to unravel an explanation.  You know that place?  The place that feels as if it was created just for you.  The place where the sun always shines a bit brighter, where the breeze is always a little more fragrant, where the food always tastes better.  The place that has everything you love in life.

For me, that place is Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Theatre, gourmet foods, nutrient-rich agricultural soil and close-to-ideal climate for growing the grapes that make delicious the wine I drink and the Niagara peaches I relish.  Have you ever had a perfectly ripe peach, whether it be from Niagara or Georgia or anywhere else?  Sinking your teeth into the soft flesh and feeling the juices burst into your mouth and run down your chin… it’s one of life’s rare, sublime experiences.

I just went to that place with someone very special to me, and within moments, I could feel my shoulders descending from somewhere around my ears and ending where they’re supposed to rest.  I am thankful that those places exist: refuges in a world of turmoil.

That place is different for everyone.  For one person, it might be a monster truck rally; for another, the home of a friend or family member where you feel safe; for yet another, a special place in the woods… like Winnie the Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot.  And it’s possible to have more than one place, of course.  All that is needed to make it your place is that it rejuvenates you and, for a little while, everything feels right with the world.

Wherever it is for you — whoever you are — make plans to go there soon.

Please comment below and tell me where your place is.

Canada

After a day of sun and water and laughter, our family went down to a park in London, Ontario last night to watch a fantastic fireworks display in celebration of  Canada Day. As we stood to sing our national anthem, I felt a sense of pride swell in my heart, and maybe I sang our anthem a little more loudly than everyone else around me.  Then, with the thunderous pop of each firework as it exploded into a blaze of spectacular colour in the sky, I felt a sense of calm wash over me.  (I’m sure that had more to do with my happiness in being a part of something I believe in than it did with inhalation of the marijuana smoke wafting over to us from some teens a short distance away).

I believe in Canada. By no means is it a perfect country, but I believe in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which I see as a statement of what Canada aims to do, even if it doesn’t always succeed.  It is a statement on respecting the dignity, freedom, and equality of each person.

I’m thankful for living in a country where even the lowest quality of life is better than lots of other places in the world, including more than a few developed countries.  I’m grateful for crystal lakes, grand expanses of untouched wilderness, and diversity of people and cultures.

Yesterday was Canada’s birthday and today (and yesterday), I’m thankful for living in Canada.

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