Archives for posts with tag: Photography

(Inside the Thousand Buddha Cave, near Luang Prabang, Laos)


Where are thoughts we no longer think?

Forgotten fragments of an earlier us

who breathed

and knew differently.

Links to an earlier self;

tumbled in memory, frayed, misplaced,

saved by random connection

of an unexpected smell, or taste.

Is there a place where old thoughts go?

A graveyard somewhere out of mind?

Is there an archive for them,

uncatalogued, unsigned?

Do past thoughts persist?

Where do they stay

when they’re unremembered;

with passing days?

Off the radar and out of mind,

unsummoned, bypassed,

do they wither and die

like cut flowers on glass?

Those ghostly constructs

that earlier selves spun,

elude us and withdraw,

leaving the question:

Just who are we after all?

Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)
A Life worthwhile.
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)
Many years ago, in the distant past, I was an apprentice to to printing trade. Master printers were then called 'journeymen'. These days, in retirement, I have apprenticed myself to the classical guitar.
I have come to accept I will never be a guitar master. The guitar will always master me. It intrigues and delights me, but doesn't yield its secrets easily. Hard work and practice make difficult and complex skills easier, but even then, if ever I'm tempted to bask in the sunshine, my guitar waits to humble me. It's a humiliating experience to have a string buzz or my finger select the wrong string when I least expect it on material I have played perfectly multiple times before.
There are, of course, other bits that I manage to play badly most times. A string insists on buzzing discordantly when I play the barre chords in the music below:
That's ok. I am a humble person, mostly. I am learning that my guitar will cooperate on this, as in every other matter, only when it is satisfied that I know my business properly. Near enough is never good enough it seems.
My guitar, on the other hand, is not humble in the least.
It has every reason to act like an aristocrat. When everything comes together, harmony and voices from nylon strings are truly beautiful things. I hear them, transcendent and ethereal, and marvel at how flesh, nail and sinew, nylon and wood coax them into being. The sounds decay almost as soon as they're launched, but live afterwards in the spring in my step and the inner smile in my soul.
Now and then I clutch the guitar closer as I play, and feel my chest cavity resonate with its notes.
Truly beautiful. Worth every hour of practice I will ever do, to learn how to create them on demand and tame them at will. The guitar has won my heart. My hand and finger dexterity is struggling to catch up.
In the meantime I am grateful for the sense that progress is happening, even if it is slower than I would want. I read somewhere that it takes about ten thousand hours to master the guitar. I have been playing up to ten hours a week for two years. That makes it only another 18 years or so to go.
I read somewhere else that there is no end point in playing an instrument; that it is a never-ending journey that you can enjoy along the way. Maybe in that way I can see myself as a journeyman, if not a master.
A guitar journeyman? I'll cling to that.
I am not you.
I see what you see,
but I see differently.
Let me be.
(A Garden in the Alhambra Palace, Granada)
I do not need
to think like you,
but I might need to hear
what you have to say.
Don’t exclude me
or demonise me.
My heart beats as yours does
and I breathe as you breathe.
We touch the same air
and live in the same streets,
but you look ascance at me.
You question my sincerity and motives,
as you preen in the righteousness of your own.
(The anger of zealots expressed on a church wall in Granada, Spain)
You float through life in a bubble
self referencing,
self affirming,
convinced of your moral superiority.
I believe
as sincerely as you do
but hold a different truth
in my heart.
Mine is as precious to me
as yours is to you.
We flatter ourselves
that we own the truth.
Maybe if our truths have no room for each other
there is no room for either of them?
If what I value makes me unworthy;
If how I see things excludes me
from your regard;
then so be it.
I will let you be.
(Embossed door of the Sagria Familia Cathedral in Barcelona)

My urge to write comes and goes. Could be something to do with tides or phases of the moon. Or maybe the influences are more subtle, less easily attributed. More ethereal.
My state of mind for instance. It wanders, you see. My inner world is a labyrinth and my mind has a habit of sauntering through the corridors, pausing here and there to pick up an image, a memory, thoughts or a feeling, sometimes mislaid, sometimes waiting to be made sense of, catalogued and tidied away. I don’t have the plans for the building, and for some of its rooms I don’t even have a key.
That’s one reason I write blog entries. The process of writing serves to tidy up my inner world and to help me make sense of stuff I don’t have a key to access. It’s a healthy thing to do, I guess.

Now and then I use photographs as a stimulus to writing. And so it is today. Four photographs and one short video clip are my mystical muses.

What is it about us?

Look at this image of the city of Sydney by night. The world of the immediate. A world of lights and sound and tastes; where anything can happen, good and bad, benign and dangerous. The unspoken seduction of crowds, noise and lights brings people together in large numbers, as it has always done.

Why is it then that the monuments we build as testaments to our ingenuity are such contradictions? Cities across the world are showcases for the best we can do. We walk down their streets and reassure ourselves that we’re cleverer than people were in the past; that life is purposed by canyons of concrete and glass; and that we’re in control.
And yet . . .

You don’t need to look too hard to see cities struggling to match words with deeds. Communities in name only, they breed alienation and nurture inner emptiness in the souls who tread sterile urban wastelands. Blank faces, and eyes that don’t meet other eyes: Testaments to the loneliness of crowds.

City living the pinnacle of human ingenuity? Or have we got some priorities badly wrong?
Perhaps that is a bit harsh. Humans are social beings. Well, most of us are . . . even me. I enjoy a night out on the town as much as anyone, but this morning I’m in a mood to wonder why our cleverness does not often guarantee our happiness.
What is it about us?

We start out well enough . . . if we’re lucky enough to have parents who want us and care for us. I reckon these little fellas have a lot of things right in their approach to life. Living in the moment they carry no burdens. Trusting and loving, they elicit love and delight from everyone they meet.

Simple, isn’t it? So why do we find it so hard?
What did we lose along the way as we learned to take our place in the world? Our innocence? Our Wonder? Our trust? Ourselves? I don’t know. Maybe these changes are inevitable and necessary, but I wonder. Is it necessary for adults to lose their sense of wonder and their connection with themselves?
So is there an answer; an antidote to a damaged adult soul?
I’m going to be bold and claim that love is all when it comes to human well being and happiness. There is no material success; no job title; no salary or position of power means a jot of anything to me compared to loving and being loved. If I were ever tempted to forget that I would only need to look at those boys’ faces above.

As a grandparent, this is all clear to me. As a parent, to my shame, it was not always so. I wasted a lot of time and opportunities chasing mirages, and in the process took the love of my family for granted.

Why is it, that so many of us sacrifice our lives on the altar of material assets or power or seductive dreams when the substantive things escape our notice? Are we just slow learners? Or are we wilfully blind?

The mystical musings continue as I remember a beach in northern Spain. The photograph speaks of journeys. The beach begs to be walked, and the path rising to the top of the hill suggests a destination somewhere out of sight. How often have I walked such tracks? How many times have I found the journey more satisfying than the destination?

How often in my life have I chosen to follow paths, some actual, some metaphorical, hoping to find new things? A new start. A new experience. A place where things made better sense. Sometimes I found what I was looking for, and sometimes I got lost, badly lost. What I didn’t realise was that what I was seeking was not to be found at the end of a journey so much as inside myself.
That self knowledge is hard earned. It has cost me and those I love lots of cuts and grazes, and grief. Now the people I have learned to admire most are those who put others first, and go about their lives at peace with themselves and walk gently in the world. They are treasures. Perhaps you know someone like that? I would like to be one someday.

And to finish these mystical musings, I would like to share with you a short video I recorded last year in a monastery in Armenia. It is an Armenian group (obviously) who perform traditional folk songs and elements from the unbroken 1500 year old traditions of the Armenian Apostolic church. I cannot remember the group’s name, but I suppose a bit of work with Doctor Google would remedy that.

The songs were Armenian. It did not matter. I stood barely breathing, as I listened. The floor could have opened up beneath me and I would have floated, completely immersed in the moment. A mystical experience? Yes, even despite the presence of other tourist groups who, while temporarily silenced, soon wandered off chattering amongst themselves about I know not what.

I listen to this clip periodically to remind myself of the experience, and to be confronted again by the insights it gave me:
That there are things in this life that transcend the daily routine and matters we think are important. That when all else fades away these things will remain as strong and clear as ever. Love is one of them. Belonging is another.



One final thought:

Being able to stand outside one’s self and see, hear and feel the cries of others is the greatest thing I know. I am grateful for the times, here and there, I can manage to do that, and can only hope people can forgive me when I can not.

(Arriving in Budapest sitting on the top deck. A memorable experience.)
It’s been a while since my last post. Looking back at those words, I think some lacked charity. I could have been a little more upbeat, but there you have it.
In the time since, I haven’t felt the motivation to write. I enjoyed the break quite frankly, but now it’s time to clear the cobwebs and resume.
We had a great time on the cruise. We really did!
Two weeks coasting downriver on on a river cruiser was certainly no hardship. Neither was it totally what I expected. Were my preconceptions blown out of the water (um . . . so to speak)? Well, no, not really. I enjoyed the experience though (we had a ball) and would recommend it highly with a couple of qualifications. First the qualifications (that probably say more about me than they do about the cruise experience):
It was undoubtedly elitist, ┬átravelling downriver in a cocoon of comfort while the hoi polloi went about their business in the towns and villages along the way. Rather than an opportunity to experience and interact with different cultures, it was more an experience in travel voyeurism where the natives were visible but kept at a safe distance. A kind of travel pornography if you will, but maybe that is going too far. A kinder way to describe the cultural dimension of the cruise might be as a kind of travel Disneyland where the punters float past scene after scene of romantic tableaux hiding paper mache and timber frames and also, incidentally, the reality of life in the communities along the Danube. Shore excursions saw us contained in hermetically sealed bubbles (a.k.a. tour coaches) or in tour groups; obedient little chicks following our guide. At least we weren’t required to wear the funny hats or name badges I saw some poor groups had. It was possible to do your own thing on shore, but mostly we didn’t bother, as we were in holiday mode and it took energy.
(Top: Bratislava. Bottom: Vienna)
Environmentally irresponsible too, for all I know. I don’t have the data on grams of Carbon Dioxide produced per person as I see the more aware (and priggish) tour companies preening about self righteously on their websites. No doubt it was not kind to the planet, all that diesel fuel keeping the lights, kitchen, air con and beer fridges humming 24 hours a day while we sailed blissfully downriver without a care.
So that’s the downside in a nutshell: Not the sort of travel experience we were used to. Too cosseted, too artificial, too . . . comfortable . . . well you get the drift I hope. But that’s not the whole story.
(Cute houses in Lower Hungary)
There was however, a big upside, and it more than compensated. We had a wonderful time just being in the moment. We didn’t have to plan anything, cook anything, buy anything (except drinks, and they were totalled up for payment at the end), walk very far except to our cabin. The meals were silver service and a serious threat to any lifestyle improvements you may have made before boarding. Food, food and more food; all prepared professionally by chefs and mighty hard to refuse.
Lying in bed at night with the curtains open watching the riverbank sliding past in the moonlight and listening to the gentle sound of the hull slicing through water is an experience like no other. No other, that is, unless you fall asleep without closing the curtains and wake in the morning with your ship moored next to a busy wharf with people walking past your floor to ceiling window which is open to the world, or next to another ship where staterooms like yours are a hand span away from your window. It pays to remember to close things up before you drift off to sleep.
(River bank in the morning. It is wonderful to wake up to such as this.)
There was another big upside. Tour coaches and guides notwithstanding, we simply would never have seen anything of countries like Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria if we hadn’t been on this cruise. I can’t imagine we would ever have turned at at the border to any of them in a hire car. Which saddens me a little, as they are beautiful countries with a lot to offer.
Oh, and the crew were completely professional and attentive. I have never encountered such a group of people who were so focused on service excellence. They did this without being in any way obtrusive. Five stars of approval to them.
So, would I travel with this cruise company again? Absolutely and without hesitation. They do what they do very well. Provided you understand and are seeking the type of holiday experience they provide, you would have to be very hard to please if you didn’t enjoy it.
Cruise company: Avalon Cruises
Ship: Avalon Passion
Cruise: Danube Cruise between Vienna and the Black Sea (14 days).
Quality and Customer Service: 10/10
Holiday Experience: 9/10
Value: 8/10
(Moored at St George at the mouth of the Danube, looking out to the Black Sea)