Picture Where You Live

Family Photographs - The Author with family.

I learn alot about my life and the lives of the people in my family by looking at old family photographs. I learn which people, activities and events gave them the most experience, joy, and hardship. Still photographs and videos have a remarkable way of bringing us back in time emotionally too.

Photographs merely bind personal data to other human beings related to us, whom we may know something about. What their names were, what they did for a living, who they married, and who they conceived.  Boring facts mostly.

While photos give us insight into stories about the past, genetic studies have created a crystal ball into our stories to come in the future. Genetic work predicts what we as individuals can expect by way of heart diseases, mental health, and other degenerative disorders. This information will be the key to treating diseases ahead of time, to minimize damage and help ensure a longer, happier life.

While genetic and medical data are factual and can provide scenarios for the future, it is the personal stories about the past that provides insight into the present. The stories about others are not about the subjects so much as the storyteller through what they tell about *others* in the family. These stories are what spew out our mouths when remembering the patchy information about our distant relatives and life events to the satisfaction of ourselves.  It’s contriving the actual narrative to go along with the factual fragments we decide to share, in order to create a realistic portrayal of our ancestors (who are an extension of ourselves), cleanly washed and pressed for the world to receive.

Maggie McReynolds describes making vicarious life decisions based on what we learn from our relatives, and that some of our decisions are based on their voices, rather than our own. She makes her case brilliantly in a compelling Ted-X talk using the metaphor Living in our Great-Grandparent’s Houses.

We generally remember best about times where there are photographs or videos, but letters people wrote and the stories they tell invoke a different mode of creative interpolation where we must “read between the lines” a little to understand not just the stories, but why people told the stories they did in letters at particular times in their lives.

Disruptive life-events are often unavoidable, but some are.  Many of us find ourselves in repeating cycles of counter-productive behavior, and the only thing that breaks us out of it, is some good old chaos and drama! If we can’t get distraction through life’s normal vicissitudes of births, deaths, changes of jobs, etc, we find something to create the distraction.

There are very good reasons to do all those things too, and distraction is necessary for survival at times of course, to gain perspective and break a rigid focus.  But my point is we tend to create distractions to avoid facing certain things in life. What if this distractive energy were able to be channelled into crafting more productive habits? This way, instead of responding to agitation by engaging in trivial distractions and mindless entertainment, we use the energy to identify and patch the areas of our lives that are causing us and our loved ones the most distress?

A little food for thought as we approach the new year. I hope you and your family have a loving holiday season and new year.

Nature Photography and Meditation

I recently had the opportunity to visit the island of San Juan off Washington state with friends to camp, kayak, and shoot wildlife photography.  I’ve been doing photography in various capacities since I was 8 years old, but never got very involved with photographing wildlife for a number of reasons.  First, the gear and telephoto lenses required to get close enough are extremely expensive.  Second, I’ve never had the interest in pursuing the knowledge required to know where to go to “stalk” subjects properly.  Besides, more interesting subjects require expensive travel.  On San Juan island the Orca whales travel and feed up and down the west coast of the island daily this time of year, so the opportunities to photograph them are plentiful.  I rented what I thought was an adequate telephoto zoom lens, and when chores around the campsite were done went off to the cliffs and shoreline to photograph whales.

Whale Tail

The Elusive Orca Whale

The first thing I learned about wildlife photography is you can never be close enough to your subject.  You can only zoom in so far with photoshop without all your work looking like a blurry sighting of bigfoot in the wilderness.  The second thing I learned is the minimum shutter speed should be approximately the same fraction of a second as your focal length.  If you’re shooting a 400mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400th of a second to avoid blurring due to the great magnification.  The third thing to know about wildlife photography is if something interesting happens and the subject is not in your viewfinder at the time it happens, the opportunity is almost certainly lost forever and it is better to observe the moment, rather than scramble to try to get a bead on it with your camera after the fact.  This can be extremely disappointing, especially when you’ve spent a good part of a day waiting for a good shot.

San Juan Eagle

You won’t catch this bird wandering attention. Why? Her quality of life depends on it…and so does yours as a meditator.

Like meditation, I found wildlife photography requires intense awareness, concentration, and patience.  If attention wanders or gets scattered, you can miss out on the very thing you set out to accomplish.  Meandering thoughts and attention distract from the objective of being present and aware.  In nature photography, we need to keep one eye on the big picture and the other fixed to the viewfinder.  Similarly, in Vipassana, one must remain aware of what is going on in the big picture of one’s mental state while remaining diligent about scanning the body for sensation.  Am I remaining focused, or are ancillary thought patterns interfering with the goal of staying with the sensations of the moment?

San Juan Seal at Sunset