Tag Archive: writing


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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on top of the world

Everest

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.

freedom extended

Mid-June, I put away Hugo’s Les Miserables in favour of Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Hugo was too heavy for the sultry summer weather, and I desired literature that had been aired out a little.

Both of the two Twain novels are light-hearted, enjoyable reads, but Huck Finn’s saga has an underbelly of racial commentary.  There are a few points in the novel which stand out in this manner, but there is a short section in Chapter 16 which I feel is almost the crux of the story.  In it, Huck Finn and his runaway slave companion, Jim, are travelling down the Mississippi, looking for Cairo.  Cairo is positioned at a crossroads between freedom and enslavement: continue further down the Mississippi and travel deeper into the south, or travel up the Ohio river and reach the northern states where slavery is abolished.

Huck begins to have a crisis of conscience (please excuse the use of derogatory language below, but I am quoting and, really, considering the point I am making, it would be idiotic to censor):

Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t cell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them.

It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.”  Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but shake my head.  Of course, I have a decent grasp of history and the treatment of slaves. I understood, too, that slaves were truly objectified, and stealing a person’s slave or helping that slave escape was perceived as no different than stealing their farm animals or their jewels.  It still astounded me, though, to hear stated in such bald terms that a greater crisis of conscience might arise from the idea of a man taking back his children and wife from the person who “owns” them, than does arise from the idea of the person “owning” them in the first place.

Later in the book, Jim talks about how he misses his family, and Huck simply cannot understand it, even though he would think nothing of a White person missing his or her family.  To Huck, it must seem as crazy as a table getting emotional about the absence of other tables: he simply cannot see Jim as a human being with feelings and yearnings.

Twain, of course, lived and wrote in the time when all of this was a reality so, even though it is fiction, he is a satisfactory and reliable commentator: this is what people believed.

Huckleberry Finn: Jim on the Raft

Illustration Credit: E. W. Kemble (original book illustration); Licence: Public Domain

The idea of having no free will and no personal choice; of being owned, and having my destiny determined, by another; of knowing that fulfilling a natural desire for companionship and offspring would simply enslave another person at the profit of another; of being separated from the people I love and not being able to bridge that gap; to say nothing of the abuse suffered by slaves…. the idea of it all is simply too disturbing to consider.

Slavery is truly one of the most disgusting blights on the history of humanity.

A few days ago, I spoke about my gratitude for freedom, but I felt that this example of freedom deserved special attention.  Today, I am thankful not only for my freedom, but for the heroes of history who went against the grain and fought against slavery, and fought for civil rights.

an ubiquitous liar

It used to be that, whenever I felt sad, I would watch Schindler’s List (1993) or some equally horrific film about the atrocities committed by people against their fellow men and women.  Telling people this always led to quizzical expressions in response.

“Why on earth would you do that?” they would ask.  “Doesn’t that make you more sad?”

Oddly, it didn’t, and not because I’m secretly a sociopath.  I found that, most of the time when I felt sad, it was really me just feeling sorry for myself.  Watching a film about people who suffer considerably more than me helped me appreciate what I had going for me.

As time progressed, I discovered that there were occasions when I would spiral into a very dark pit of despair, with feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and hopelessness swirling around me, mocking me with sharp tongues.  I learned that no amount of exposure to the plights of others could lift me from those depths, no effort at counting my blessings could cheer me.  I came to call those occasions “depression.”

man looking out the window at rain

Photo Credit: Jiri Hodan; Licence: Public Domain

I started this blog a few months ago because  I wanted to stop feeling angry and cheated at the misfortunes in my life.  I’ve had my share of life disasters, but I also have a supportive family, a job, my wife, my children, my health, etc.  Stopping each day to acknowledge something beautiful and wonderful in my life is a way of realizing that my blessings far outweigh the little crosses I have to bear from time to time.  Starting this blog was my own personal brand of cognitive-behavioural therapy, and a heck of a lot cheaper than a shrink.

And it worked!  On the whole, I have been much happier.  Those moments of sadness were more easily chased away.  But depression has still lingered at the sidelines, waiting for me to trip over my self-esteem so that it can fly in and attack me when I’m down.

Some of you might have noticed a period of absence this past weekend where I wrote no posts of gratitude.  Depression had been haunting me all week and finally got the better of me.  It was saying a lot of horrible things about me, and I didn’t feel grateful for much.

Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) often says that depression is a liar.  I agree with her.  The challenge is getting yourself to acknowledge that when depression is sitting on your chest and you’re gasping for air.

Today, I am thankful that my periods of light far exceed my times of darkness, both in length and in frequency.  Others aren’t so lucky.

teacher

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.

I had a few memorable ones, but the first and most memorable one was my grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Keating.  Before her, I was a goofy kid with my head in the clouds.  After her, I was still a goofy kid with my head in the clouds, but felt better about myself for it.  She instilled in me a love of writing and generally made me feel like I had a special place in the world.  A lot of who I am today, I owe to her.

Teaching has changed a great deal over the years, spanning back to the archetypal one-room school teacher: scholarly, poorly paid, highly scrutinized.  The chief and sole reward of the position was the opportunity to enrich young minds, to make a difference.

Child raising his hand in the classroom

Photo Credit: Michael Anderson; Licence: Public Domain

Sometimes teachers are yet another class of secret hero, changing the world behind chalk-dusted dockers and polka-dotted skirts.  Perhaps it doesn’t carry with it the diamond-studded glamour enjoyed by the “heroes” we raise up on pedestals.  But there is a small village somewhere in the world — it doesn’t matter where.  There is a little girl who is the first in her family to go to school.  It took a lot of work for the missionaries to convince the elders and her parents that there was benefit to this. Now she is bumbling off to the small school house built by the people of her village.  It’s her first day.  She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to meet someone she will never forget, someone who will give her possibly the greatest gift anyone will ever give her: education.  Maybe if we fast forward 25 years, that same girl is an economist, working with the government to bring a better life to people like the ones in her village.  Try to tell her that her first teacher, 25 years ago, wasn’t a hero.

Now the job pays better, thank goodness, although I think teachers put up with a lot more attitude and defiance in the classroom.  Like that one-room school teacher, though, the greatest reward for most isn’t the pay cheque at the end of the week but the possibility that, some day, one of those children will grow up to do something extraordinary, and the teacher can reasonably enjoy a brief moment of pride in knowing that he or she might have contributed to that.  Even better if that young mind — now older — looks back through all of the angsty years, the awkward years, the first kiss, the first love, the first thrill of learning something that made his or her mind explode with possibility, and says, “thanks.”

I haven’t done anything extraordinary.  I hope some day I will.  But no matter what happens, I still want to say: thanks, Mrs. Keating — today, I am grateful for you.

Who was your favourite teacher?  I know you had one.  We all did.  Tell me about yours in the Comments.

newshound

Journalists are a nasty bunch of wraiths who will bully, deceive, cheat, and sell their souls to get a scoop on a good story.  And if they can’t get a good story, they’ll manipulate the truth until it’s something that will sell.

Leastways, that’s what popular media has always led me to believe.

I am perhaps a lonely one among the masses in that I have a great deal of respect for the noble industry of journalism. If you ever read, watch, or listen to the news, you should too.  Let me tell you why.

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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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