Tag Archive: creativity


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.

an austere beauty


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.

on top of the world


Photo Credit: Bernard Goldbach; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Even as a child, I found my brain lacked focus in the first hour after waking.  The experience has become more prominent with age.  To say it “lacks focus” sounds negative, but I don’t intend it to be.  If I am trying to focus on a task at work, having a mind that wanders can be a bad thing.  But a wandering mind is essential to originality.  Or, to drag an old cliche out of the closet and beat it like a rug: wandering minds “think outside of the box,” and it is outside of the box that all the messy, nebulous plasma of creativity lies.

My wandering mind brings me inspiration for writing, for new approaches to troublesome problems, for new website ideas, for new directions to take in life, for… the list is endless.  Other times, I find myself reliving memorable experiences, some of them moments when I acted shamefully, and others which are a source of pride or joy.

The other day, lying awake in bed in the first warming moments of dawn, waiting for the house to come to life, a memory popped into my head.

Time for a juicy confession: when I was in high school, I was a Latin geek.  (Okay, so it’s not the type of thing you’ll see splashed across the tabloids, but I needed to say the confession was juicy to keep you reading.  I initially titled this post “Latin geek,” but figured no one would stick around to read it).  I know you’re picturing a pale, waif of a youth, with a perpetual runny nose, ill-fitting clothes, and no social skills and — well, you’d be partially correct.  It’s rare nowadays to find a school that even offers Latin for study, much less one where it’s the best class in the school.  My Latin class was extremely engaging, owing largely to a phenomenal teacher — Margaret-Anne Gillis — who has almost single-handedly resuscitated the stone-cold language and spent most of her career spreading the word that rumours of Latin’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Once, in senior Latin, we were assigned a passage of poetry to be performed by each student in front of the class.  Like much of classical poetry, the passage was in dactylic hexameter.  Dacta-what?  Look it up on Wikipedia.

On the date of performance, the teacher cycled through the class.  Like any subject, different students expended varying levels of effort.  Some stumbled through the passage, pronouncing barely any of the words correctly; others, pronounced the words correctly but with limited expression; a few had expression but did not follow the meter; others followed the meter, but spoke in a monotone.

I was the last performer, and I had practiced the hell out of this passage of poetry.  Not only had I carefully practiced each word to ensure I said it correctly and clearly, but I read it according the meter, and delivered it all in a dramatic voice.  And, despite many of my practice runs, when I had stumbled over parts of the passage, I said it all without a single error.

When I was finished, the entire class erupted in applause.

Today, I am thankful for the few occasions in life when we feel like we are on top of the world.  Remembering this event the other morning, I found a smile spreading across my face.  Most of us spend our lives as one person among billions, nameless and faceless and insignificant.  But once in a while, we do something that stands out, and a few people take notice.  Maybe the course of history isn’t affected, maybe it doesn’t change the world… but it changes us.

Have you had a moment where you shined?  Please tell me about it in the Comments.

alchemy of the word

I remember in childhood fancying that novels were magic portals to faraway lands and times.  It’s a hackneyed concept — I know — but, with vivid imagination, I would open a book and enter a twilight terrain filled with other people’s conflicts, other people’s stories, other people’s losses, other people’s loves.  Sometimes those characters were larger-than-life and, other times, the characters themselves were nothing special but there was something remarkable in what they experienced or in what they did.  It was a tame class of voyeurism to derive pleasure from peeping in on others’ lives, but boy did I love it.

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I am a proponent of evolutionary psychology, the school of psychology that believes human behaviour can be explained in terms of survival benefit. It is beneficial for the species, for instance, that we do everything we can to ensure our offspring survive. We deposit infants into the world, completely vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. It makes sense, then, that parents should care for their offspring until the children are able to care for themselves. If you’ve spent much time with infants, you’ll know they don’t exactly ingratiate themselves with you through their behaviour alone. Charming traits like waking you up every two hours to feed and eliminating waste at any place, any time, might have made our neanderthal forebears inclined to toss these screaming tyrants to the wolves. That would never do, of course, so the capacity for love evolved. (I realize this is a severe oversimplification, but you get the point).

But music! No matter how many theories I read on the evolutionary benefit of music, it still feels like an anomaly. Sure, it might be a by-product of the evolution of another behaviour, or it might have evolved as an adaptive mechanism to promote bonding.  But none of that explains the way music makes me feel, like an explosion of feeling has gone off in my chest, and sometimes an intensity felt throughout my entire body.  None of that explains the complex neuronal light show necessary for musical appreciation. To listen to music uses a multitude of cognitive functions, and our brains must be just like a fireworks display. All of that from an evolutionary by-product?  Hard to believe.  And there are already several other simpler human behaviours which promote bonding.  Why would music ever be necessary?


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil, Licence: Public Domain

Yet there music is, in us and around us and in every culture, in every inhabited place in the world.  Somehow, the inadequacy of science to explain music to me makes music seem like a mystery unwilling and unable to be solved.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  As much as I love science — and I really do adore science — there is some small measure of comfort in feeling that there are things science can’t explain, though science may strive to do so.

Today, whether I am sailing down the highway singing along with some classic rock, snapping my fingers to the rhythm of some jazz, or glorying in an operatic aria — today, I am thankful for music.  Music has transformed my life, permitting me to leave behind drudgery for a little while and enter a unique and remarkable realm filled with inexplicable feelings and sensations.

How do you experience music?


While driving between office sites last week, I got my “daily smile” when I saw a mom walking with her two daughters, whose faces were peaking out of square openings cut into cardboard boxes.  The cardboard boxes were unremarkable: no glittery paint, no accordion tubes encirling their arms. In fact, now that I recall it, the boxes didn’t even have holes for the girls’ arms.  Most conspicuous were the enormous grins on the girls’ faces, and the joyful — albeit somewhat embarrassed — grin on their mother’s face.


Rainbow over Knoicknara. Photo Credit: Jon Sullivan. Licence: Public Domain.

It’s my guess that the girls were pretending to be robots, though the expansiveness of a child’s imagination is such that, really, they could have been pretending to be just about anything.  And something tells me that they weren’t doing this because they were going to a costume party or some sort of event.  Had they been, I’m sure they would have put more effort into decorating their costumes.  I’m willing to bet that they just stumbled across cardboard boxes and decided to be robots for the day.

I’m 30, which most consider still young, but many days childhood feels to me like a distant memory. I have very little hair left on my head, and my once vivid blue eyes have faded a bit. I have considerably less energy than I used to and, lately, it seems to be a great deal harder to get up off the floor from playing with my son. But I’m not so old that I can’t remember the hours of fun I could distill from a cardboard box when I was a kid. The simplest things were imbued with infinite possibilities.

As we age, some imagination stays with us but, as J. M. Barrie wrote, “all children, except one, grow up.”   That might be a tad too low of an estimate — I think there are a few lucky ones whose capacity for imagination never wanes, and an even fewer clever or talented ones who manage to make a living from it — but the general idea remains true: our society is woefully intolerant of those who live with their heads in the clouds.

Today, I am thankful for imagination, that gracious element that instills life with a little bit more sweetness.  And I am thankful, too, for people like the girls’ mother, who foster it in others. There is no way of knowing for sure, of course, but it could be fairly argued that humans are the only animal on the planet with an ability to imagine, and that makes it a rare and marvelous gift, worthy of gratitude.

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