Most days really. And there are no spare minutes to go swanning off after bluebirds.
There are days that are just endless paper jamming — waiting on hold — stuck in traffic — number crunching — brain numbing — is it over yet? — sorts of days.
At these times you need crows. And rust. And weeds growing in cracks in the asphalt.
The beauty of crows is …
Ah well, there are so many things that are beautiful about crows …
OK, let’s just say that one of the great things about crows is that, here in Vancouver at least, there is almost always one handy to distract you for a moment.
Even when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting for that freight train to budge, or the log jam of cars to clear, you can almost always catch a glimpse of a crow or two doing something interesting and/or silly within view. The trick is not to get too interested so you miss when the traffic starts to move.
Sometimes a crow in the right light can be the perfect substitute for a Mountain Bluebird — Vancouver’s very own bluebird of happiness.
No matter how rushed and boring a day, there’s usually at least time for a ten minute walk outside.
And, if you look a little bit sideways, put your eyes out of focus a little, you can find beautiful things almost anywhere.
“There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.”
From — Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? –by Mary Oliver
Smithrite with awesome graffiti, including (in elegant script) the word “knit.”
Flowering quince in evening light against a the side of peeling set of concrete stairs.
If you can’t get to the woods, sometimes a miniature horsetail forest will do.
Of course, there are days much worse than the paper jam days.
There are days when you’re in pain. Days when you receive very bad news.
Days when you feel as if you are nothing more than a hollow conduit for an endless river of sadness.
I’ve had days like those too, and ordinary, or even extraordinary, beauty alone would not do the trick.
But it’s always been there, part of the healing recipe of family, friends, doctors, medicine, therapy and time.
Crows, rust, weeds, poetry, clouds, trees, the sound of wind, bird calls, snippets of graffiti, lichen, peeling paint, the occasional raven or mountain bluebird — they all seem like the dots and dashes of a distant morse code message.
The meaning is alway just out of reach, but it gives purpose to each day to attempt the translation.
Gifts are something we start thinking about at this time of year.
We fret about finding perfect gifts for the people in our life.
Free gifts and special offers abound. Things can, and often do, get kind of crazy. By December it’s hard to see the wood for the Christmas trees, vis a vis why we’re doing what we’re doing.
I think of it as being placed, reluctantly, in the luge track (or perhaps the head first Skeleton would be more apt) for the festive season. We’re tucked in and about to head off at breakneck speed. Some days will just go by in a blur, until we end up in a crumpled heap on Boxing Day, wondering how on earth we got here.
In short, there seems to be little time for reflection during the holiday season. I’m about to strap myself in for the festive ride. In fact, I’ve already sent newsletters of my own about special offers and free gifts in my online shop, for people looking to buy gifts for others.
Which got me thinking about the nature of gifts. Gifts that you can’t buy.
Of course there are many of these. Love. Friends. Family. Music. Nature. Health.
But, particularly at this crazy time of year, one of the most precious gifts is stillness.
I am a bit of a “doer” in my personal and creative life. I tend to just keep moving and doing until I’m too tired to do any more. I think I get this from both of my parents, who seemed to be constantly making, fixing, knitting, cooking or cleaning.
In some ways this is great, but it makes it hard to be “in the moment”. I find my mind insistently wanders to tasks ahead when I’m doing yoga or trying to meditate. Or even sleep.
But I finally discovered one way to stop the mind spinning and quiet the “lists”.
In 1999 my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mother had died unexpectedly two years earlier and I’d hardly got my bearings after that. My dad lived in the UK. I lived in Canada with my husband, and two small children. Thanks to the great kindness of a friend, who gave me three business class trips to the UK, I was able to visit him often during his last year. When the end came, he didn’t want to die in hospital, so my last trip was not just to visit, but to nurse him at home. It was a remarkable time. My brain, I believe, actually melted a bit under the stress of fatigue and worry about him, and about the family I had abruptly left behind in Vancouver.
I slept on the floor by his bed and was awake every hour or so. For one hour a day, a nurse came in to bathe him and to give me a break. The time was not really enough to have a nap and, if I tried, my mind just raced with a competing derby of thoroughbred worries. So, instead, I took to going for walks in the countryside around the house.
On those walks, everything seemed magnified in significance and beauty. I believe that the sheer stress of grief, responsibility, and tiredness forced my eyes open in a new way.
Things that I would not have noticed before seemed truly incredible. The rusted and contorted barbed wire on the farmer’s fence seemed to somehow symbolize the struggle that my dad was going through. Every old stone wall, piece of moss and crumpled leaf seemed full of meaning. I may just have been delirious from lack of sleep, but that experience stayed with me long after he died.
In a way, it was Dad’s last gift.
It permanently changed how I look at the world.
When things are spinning out of control, I’m still an epic failure at traditional meditating. But walking and looking really closely at the things around me (which for me, involves photography) can slow things down to a peaceful pace, or even a momentary full stop.
All the lists and the worries can be briefly put to one side. For a few moments everything is still, and all that is beautiful and wonderful in nature is perfectly encapsulated in that one piece of rust or lichen, the sheen of a bird feather, the visual poetry of shadow or, the hop, skip and jump of a crow. It’s like being in a cathedral, even if it’s, geographically, an urban alley or a forest trail.
This little starling kept me company while I had a coffee at Granville Island.
Walking to pick up my van from the mechanic I came across this incredible landscape of created by a shattered windshield on the sidewalk.
The sun catches the light on lovely new post-molting season crow feathers
Amid the holiday shopping, menu planning, house decorating, travel plans, and social life scheduling, it’s worth taking the time to give yourself a few of these small gifts every day.
Downtown Vancouver – falling leaves trapped and displayed on the glass awning above the sidewalk.
To look deeply at something (not in a shop) and think to yourself “wow”.
And then move back into the slipstream of your day, but carry the “wow” with you.
Just a small selection of the 1,500 or so rust, peeling paint, graffiti, old china, wallpaper etc photos I’ve collected.
It’s a rainy day here in Vancouver. The first of many, I suspect. But, to quote one of my mother’s many handy sayings, “every cloud has a silver lining.” These grey, wet days are perfect for heading out and adding to my “texture” photo collection.
I think it started with the battleship linoleum on out bathroom floor when I was little. I used to stare at it and could see several distinct scenes of action. The one I remember most clearly was a lion swimming in a strong current of green swirling water. In those distant pre-internet (even pre-TV) days, I used to make up stories about the world within the lino. More recently, I was sure that this intersection of green and blue looked, if you squint a bit, like a tropical oasis.
So began a lifelong fascination with patterns and pictures in the most unlikely places – rust, lichen, water, grating, reflections, lace, wallpaper, ice, fibreglass, peeling paint. Often to the exasperation of my long-suffering family. A few years ago I was in London with my son, then eighteen. As I crouched over a rusty grating to take the hundredth photo of the day, he said, “do you hear that”. I said “what?” and he replied, “it’s the sound of my eyes rolling”. I smile every time I hunker down to take yet another picture in the gutter or on a fence. I find it best to go solo on these expeditions these days!
I just checked the “textures” folder on my computer. It contains 1488 images. I’ve taken many more times that number of this type photos, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to save. What do I do with them all? Some of them end up as images in their own right, large canvases or prints. I love the fact that some of my favourite and most striking images come from extremely humble origins.
This slightly Gustav Klimt-inspired piece is actually a section of a burned out and rusted car I found deep in the woods in northern British Columbia.
This rather spectacular study of blue and orange was created by the wear pattern of a chain on a dumpster in the far corner of the parking lot of my local Costco.
Spectacular Rust on a Dumpster in our Local Costco Parking Lot
Some of the images are just fun – taken often around the house, like this one looking into a green plastic glass. I haven’t quite figured out a purpose for this one yet.
Most of the texture team play a supporting role in other images, layered to add depth (both in terms of meaning and visual interest). Every time I go back to the North East of England where I grew up, one of the things on my “must do” list is to climb up the 325 narrow winding steps of the tower at Durham Cathedral. From the top is a breath-taking panoramic view of the town and surrounding countryside. But the journey up the tower is fascinating too, as the stone walls have been embellished with graffiti – ancient and modern.
Layer upon layer of human efforts to leave a mark.
I’ve used images of the tower walls layered in some of my images of contemporary Vancouver crows. In combining the images I’m trying to keep memories of my UK background current in my daily crow-filled Vancouver life. I’m thinking about how crows are both ancient and modern and, like people, prone to mischief. I’m sure they’d be prolific graffiti artists, if only they had opposable thumbs. And maybe, if we don’t get our human act together — crows and the ruins of Durham Cathedral may perhaps outlast us all …
Some textures are used to make jewellery. One of my most popular designs is “Ribbon”. This abstract striped pattern comes from a photograph of prismatic tape I found hanging in a physics lab. It’s silvery surface is designed to reflect different light waves, creating and ever-changing combination of colour and pattern and it moves in the breeze.
Many of the images I take don’t even make it to the “textures” vault on the computer. Often they’re taken with my phone and see the light of day on my Instagram account. Lots of others flit across my Facebook page.
Still nice and cloudy out there. Better grab the camera and head out in search of some lovely rust or mouldering plywood!