on loss and ghosts that linger

I had completely forgotten how much firewood one needs when it is one’s only source of (external) heat. And suddenly I’m carried back to childhood “contests” of who-can-collect-the-most-firewood. Never fun. Always important in a way that I, selfish being, never understood or perhaps refused to appreciate. So many sticks are needed. So many logs. Just to keep a small cabin warm through even a relatively mild autumn night.


I packed the car with everything I needed (and many things I likely didn’t) for the cottage. I tried to start it. Nothing. I was able to flag someone down who helped me jump the battery. I drove it for twenty minutes to give it a good charge, then ended my trip at Canadian Tire. I tried to restart it. Nothing.


$20 for a battery test to learn that the battery is deader than dead (I didn’t dispute the metaphysics, taking the point to be emphatic). New battery: $129.99 + $79.99 for installation + $20.00 to dispose of the old battery. I asked if I could watch the installation process, to learn how to do it for myself. For liability reasons, no. I tried to watch from the window. I was invited to come through.

Dead battery caused something in the car’s brain to be wiped clean. Odometer and speedometer ceased functioning. “They should come back on as you drive,” said the mechanic. (They didn’t). It also meant that the stereo’s anti-theft device kicked in, requiring a code to be entered in order to use the radio. For a solo road trip without a cell phone, the loss of radio was a blow. But then I remembered that my dad had written the code somewhere unlabeled in the car’s manual, for exactly this reason. I flipped it open, and, sure enough, there, tucked in the last pages, was a non-descript post-it note containing a scribble (where something had been written and then crossed out), and then four digits: 3-0-5-2. A calm hand of support, a reassuring smile, on a post-it note at the back of the owner’s manual. These kinds of living archives are sometimes all that remains of my father. And they aren’t enough – they aren’t nearly enough – but they are so, so much.



I type this in a cottage heated by a wood fire where I am staying in the futile hope that my cats, who ran away now almost 6 weeks ago, will return – will smell the fire, or hear my voice and my (hopefully idiosyncratic) disturbances, and come home. Because home isn’t home without them, and because I want them to be part of whatever new home I build.

I have been thinking a lot about the Stoics, lately. (They who professed and prescribed a stiff upper-lip in the face of personal losses, but who, tellingly, softened their positions when faced with the circumstances to receive their own advice.) Is that how one should live? Defiant of the blows of circumstance? How can I live fully, feelingly, without losing myself in the loss of those things that matter most?

some thoughts on film


The first thing I ever saved up to buy was a camera. I spent the whole summer mowing my parents’ lawn and doing odd jobs, and managed to save up a couple hundred dollars to buy a Canon Sure Shot WP-1. It was a thing of beauty, and a source of tremendous personal pride to have earned it myself. Over the rest of the summer, I took and developed so many pictures that my parents quickly rescinded their offer to pay for film processing, in the hopes that it would curb my incessant desire to photograph anything and everything.  It didn’t, and I still have the huge box of prints (almost always in duplicate, just in case…), to show for it.

I stopped using film for a while when I got my first digital camera for Christmas, but my interest was rekindled when I found and borrowed (“appropriated” may be a more suitable word) my dad’s Canon AT-1. The pictures it produces are grainy, golden, and gorgeous – despite (or maybe because of?) my inexperience and uncertainty of how, exactly, photography works. It’s easily my most prized (not-quite-actually-mine) possession.


Film photography is fundamentally inconvenient – it takes time to load film, to set up a shot without autofocus, and most of all to process the film – and that may just be its greatest virtue in a digital age. Eric Kim has a great blog post outlining some of the reasons that he continues to shoot on film, despite the costs, and his reasons emphasize what I take to be some of the best advantages of older (read: non-digital) media: they force the user to be more conscious of their use, to slow down, etc. In essence: they take time.

I’ve been trying to figure out how that simple fact – the inconvenience of film – can change my relationship to each frame. The truth is that I love most every picture that I take on film – even some of the objectively bad ones. How? Why? What is the rationale, if any, for liking something that I nevertheless recognize to be objectively imperfect? Is this feeling pure sentimentality (and if so does that make it wrong)?

I’m inclined to think that the value lies in the demand of attentiveness to each shot – that the lengthy set up, and the time spent adjusting the various variables and then winding the film, and the impossibility of taking several at a time, in quick succession, mean that each picture is a small investment. Getting a half-decent picture turns out to be a somewhat fortuitous coincidence of being in the moment, and being prepared for the moment – of being both attentive to and invested in. It’s a strange hybrid of the anticipitory patience of waiting for the right moment, and the activity of preparing oneself to seize it when it happens. Much of this is true for digital photography as well, but the stakes for each digital frame are lower, which means (though perhaps doesn’t necessarily imply) that there’s less of a reason to be invested in the outcome. Perhaps it’s just that investment that makes the result feel like a payoff (whether film or digital): like so many things, takeaway is proportional to the effort put in.

Whatever the reason, there’s something undeniably beautiful about film, and it worries me that it’s increasingly difficult to find places to develop it affordably. In case the ability to do so disappears soon (not likely, but why risk it?), I’ve decided to make it a personal goal to take more pictures on film. I’m by no means a skilled photographer – the relationship between shutter speed and aperture is a source of constant confusion, and despite researching it several times I still can’t seem to ever remember what film ISO is/means… – but I’m optmistic that practice (and a bit of learning) makes perfect.

In case you’d like to join me, here are some great resources I’ve found for beginner photographers (most are useful for both film & digital).  Let’s learn how to take better photographs together!

A great overview of photography basics (terminology, etc.) from Tutorial9
Understanding aperture- and shutter priority from Photo.net
Camille Styles has a great set of resources in her Photography School series
IStillShootFilm has a great introduction for film photography beginners
Rachel (Elephantine) makes it look so easy with her “life on film” shots…

Do you have a different relationship to film than to digital media? Let me know in the comments.
And please feel encouraged to share photography tips with me – I’d love to learn your secrets to taking great pictures.

(All pictures taken using Canon AT-1 with 50mm lens)


on managing time


I feel like I’m always thinking about time.

Managing time, having (enough) time, making time, setting aside time, borrowing time, balancing time, being on time, running out of time…

Is this a widely held concern? Does it get easier or become more difficult with age?

I really could talk about time forever (except that I couldn’t (oh, glorious irony) since I won’t be here forever to do so).

Perhaps I should be more specific: today I am thinking mostly about time management and the extent to which it seems to demand impossible foresight and an immutable sense of self.

Yesterday I stumbled across this article by Brigid Schulte, in Time magazine (of course), entitled “I’ll Finish the Dishes When I’m Dead.”  The title is absolutely perfect, because it hits on the oft-felt desire (need?) to aschew mundane tasks in favour of the really fun or important stuff. How can or should I manage my time, she asks, so that I don’t miss the good bits of life because I’m too busy weeding?

As part of her search for an answer, she attends a time management course where she and several other busy people take part in an exercise that involves filling in the schedule of their ideal week.  From 12am each day to 12am the next – Sunday through Saturday – how would they spend each chunk of time if they were planning their perfect week?

As the participants quickly learn, though, not only is the task exceedingly difficult, but it neglects one of the important features of getting by: managing the mundane.  Likely no one’s dream week includes time to do the dishes or to bring the vacuum in for repairs.  And I certainly wouldn’t include a visit to the optometrist’s office or time to scrub my shower tiles (as much as I value my ocular health and the cleanliness of my bathroom).

These are nevertheless, for most of us, important parts of our continued existence – even if they may not contribute as obviously or as critically to our survival or to the meaningfulness of our existence. So then we must revise the activity to show us our schedule for a whole month – nay, a year – to give us time to fully consider and include the things that we don’t want to or need to do all the time, but that must nevertheless be done. But wait, what about big things like a family vacation or buying a house? Those are big things that require planning and saving, which means that our annual schedule must now be at least biannual, to include time spent budgeting and saving in preparation for the subsequent, ideal year in which the dream is realized.

Even suspending our certainty in the unexpected – that unforeseen circumstances will and invariably do often shake up our well-laid plans – there just doesn’t seem to be a way to make this kind of planning work.  That is the core insight of the exercise: that scheduling is not in and of itself the solution to the problem of not having enough time.  Scheduling does not make time, after all, it just gives us a sense of being able to exercise some control over how we spend it.  And furthermore, our values and priorities change, which means that planning ahead is only ever helpful to the extent that your projects and desires remain relatively consistent.  As the leader of Schulte’s time management workshop explains:

“When we die, the email inbox will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she told us. “Eighty percent of the email that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of 19 1/2 weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

But where does that leave us?

I won’t spoil Schulte’s amazing piece by giving away all of her insights.  You should most definitely read it to learn them for yourself.  I will, however, cite my favourite paragraph, since I think it points to a key consideration in evaluating time allocation strategies:

“The Greeks called that kind of time kairos. When we live by the clock, the Greeks said, we are bound by chronos time. This is the time that races, marches, creeps and flies. It is the life that T. S. Eliot measured out in coffee spoons and the 30 hours of leisure that some time researchers claim we have. But kairos is the time of the “right moment,” the eternal now, when time is not a number on a dial but the enormity of the experience inside it.”

Perhaps the key is remembering that while chronological time marches on, unfettered by our projects and experiences, we have the power to arrest the time of our experience, or to speed it up, depending on the way we approach the task with which we’re involved.  It’s not so much an issue of needing more time, as of needing to make ourselves more aware of the time we have, when we have it, so that we devote an appropriate amount of our focus and energy on it.  Or, when doing so is unfortunately unrealistic, at least to recognizing the desire or need to do so, and remembering to do our best to adapt, or to make up for it.

I’ve been trying to keep that thought in mind lately.  Freelance work affords a lot of flexibility, but that flexibility can often make it difficult to distinguish between time-that-should-be-spent-working and time-that-I-can-allow-myself-to-enjoy. I was tired yesterday, and really just wanted to get home to make some progress on a work assignment currently underway. It was Sunday, though, and I vowed to give myself the day off.  So instead, I allowed a very wise person to drag me to see an exhibit I had long wanted to check out, and then we both allowed ourselves to fall asleep while reading on the grassy banks of the Philosopher’s Walk.  Though it was initially difficult to allow myself to enjoy a slow day when I felt as though I should be being productive, it ended up being the best way to enjoy a warm summer day, and exactly the kind of reminder that I needed to stop and to be present.

I’m still not confident that I know how to draw the distinction, but given today’s gray skies, chilly temperatures and cloud cover, I’m glad I embraced the sun and warm grass while it was there.

on uncertainty


Oh poor little neglected blog, I’m sorry for not knowing what to do with you.

In truth, I have no idea why I haven’t turned to you – you who help me clarify my thoughts and make sense of mental chaos.  There’s been a lot going on (a lot, and nothing), and I haven’t known what to make of any of it.  I tried this new thing, where I turn to close friends and family for advice.  It worked surprisingly well (do you know about this?).  For someone who has spent so long thinking that independence means going it alone, and that asking for help is a sign of weakness or inability, this newfound realization that others can provide helpful perspectives and insight – without there being any sense that needing those is a sign of personal failure – is at once illuminating, freeing, and deeply enriching.  It saddens me that it took so long for me to learn this.

Still, here I am, turning to you once again.  This time not for assistance so much as for the sake of archiving.  I’d like to document this long absence and mark it as a sign of a desire for change.  I’d like to return to writing, to return to ruminating over next steps and to recording my thoughts for the sake of some future me who may like to revisit these wonderings, down the road, or for whom they may serve as a faint whisper to which I should be held accountable.  That was the impetus all along, really – to challenge and motivate myself to be accountable to my future self, and to use that to spur me into doing things in the present.

I am deeply, deeply uncertain about the future, which feels so large, looming, and vast.
My solution? Break it down into smaller, manageable pieces.


One summer. This summer.  This summer that connects to so many more – through autumns, winters and springs – yet which is, for all intents and purposes, arbitrarily yet meaningfully distinct and individual.  For the sake of my sanity, perhaps. Or for my temporal (and temporary) existence, which feels simultaneously much too small and way too big.

With that in mind, and with no time to spare, here goes a long-delayed and much needed jump into the abyss: my summer list for 2014.

La Liste (2014)

  1. make puff pastry from scratch (I’m nervous already)
  2. go on a kickass road trip
  3. go sailing
  4. engage in more random acts of kindness (one project per week, perhaps?)
  5. make myself into a cloud
  6. sew something
  7. read 5 books (much more realistic than last summer) – and no more than 3 at a time (it’s all about challenging oneself, right?)
  8. see a film in an unconventional setting (outdoor screening, drive-in, etc.)
  9. host a picnic
  10. build a budget (the eternal struggle)
  11. repaint and reclaim my apartment
  12. prep for PhD application season

They’re still more or less abstract, but we’re getting there!  Baby steps.

Suddenly the summer feels a whole lot more like an adventure… Just the way I like it.

What’s on your list, internet pals?

on being affiliated and taking credit


I’m having a really tough time with boundaries.

Let’s start a little further back.  Have you ever read the book Stargirl?  The main character is a high school-aged boy named Leo, who finds himself attracted to the quirky new girl, Stargirl Carraway, who is caring, thoughtful, unconventional, selfless, and nonconformist in a way that inspires a great deal of ambivalence from her peers – first intrigue, then admiration, then hate, then… well, I’ll let you read the book.  Stargirl is a complex character, and deciphering a core message or moral from the book is less straightforward than it seems, in my experience.  Stargirl devotes herself with reckless abandon to projects that she hopes will make people happy, often while intentionally disassociating herself from the projects so that they can be anonymous gifts that imply no desire for recognition.  She was a huge inspiration to me when I first read the book, in high school, because of her courageous blend of humility and generosity.

Now, though, I’m finding it hard to figure out how to follow her lead – and to what extent I should, or want to.  I deeply admire her character’s generosity and thoughtfulness, and long to emulate these qualities in my own life.  I also share her indifference to the spotlight (in fact, I may be more allergic to it than she is; she seems perfectly at ease being the centre of attention, because, at bottom, she just doesn’t recognize the weight of others’ gazes).  Lately, though, I am feeling the push to own my acts and projects in a way that I’m not entirely sure how to handle, and in ways that I’m not sure her character offers me insight in terms of how to mediate.

I love the community projects I’ve undertaken this year (and previously, more silently).  They make me feel connected to this city that I love so much, and it really warms my heart when people engage with my installations and report that it made their day.  Finding a way to spread that feeling of being connected to others was part of the idea behind including hashtags on the posters; it was all about giving people a way to see that this was bigger than each individual experience – that my good day is in kinship with her good day, and so on, and to allow everyone to see just how far the impact from a small box of felt flowers could extend.

So why blog about it?  Do I feel a desire/need/impetus to link myself personally to these projects?
And if so, why?

That’s the question with which I’ve been wrestling for months.  On the one hand, blogging serves as a helpful archive, and reinforces the aforementioned sense of connectedness by linking present projects to a whole past history of similar undertakings, and to additional photos for those who maybe only caught the end of an installation but would like to see more.  Blogging also offers not-insignificant practical benefits; it’s expensive to undertake these projects, and, as an underemployed philosopher, funding is a source of constant constraint when it comes to bringing ideas to fruition.  Publicizing these projects gives them greater attention, and also lends them (and me!) credibility in case, down the road, I need or decide to ask for support.  In those ways, I think that writing about my work is beneficial to my overall project.

On the other hand, it’s hard to balance desire for promotion with desire for self-promotion, and I find myself, increasingly frequently, coming up against that problematic relationship.  I’ve recently been in discussion with an organization about the idea of hosting a small installation on their front lawn, and the whole experience has brought a few things into sharp relief – namely, the extent to which I want to be affiliated with them, and them with me.  My intention was to set up a project that would be largely self-regulating (as all my projects, so far, have been), but through our discussions I feel as though I have been increasingly wrapped up in the execution as an active director of the experience – a position with which I am largely uncomfortable.  Fundamentally, I want these projects to be about people interacting with something (art/installation/random act of cheer/whatever you call it) – with me as the occassion, not the mediator, of the experience.  Ideally, I’d like to remain the anonymous author, but that seems largely impossible now, in part because doing so is it odds with at least one of the aforementioned practical considerations.  Remaining anonymous is also impossible when an installation requires a person’s direction in order for it to be executed (which is the case for a mission currently in-the-works).

How do I keep it “all about the art”?  How do I continue to promote the work without promoting myself?  Perhaps the answer lies in Stargirl, after all – specifically in her complete indifference – not distaste – for the spotlight.  Maybe the thing I need to do is not avoid the spotlight, but care less about it – care less about its meaning.

Maybe I need to stop overthinking this, and just keep doing things.  Stop asking for permission and just build.  I’m curious about your thoughts, though.  How do you see/experience/balance the relationship between act and affiliation, between project and producer?  (What would Stargirl do?)

Dear Jehangir

Dear Jehangir,

You have a pretty fantastic set of friends – you know that, right?  Today would have been your 29th birthday, and to mark the occasion, and celebrate it in the most appropriate and fitting way, your friends have created an event to spread your warmth and compassion as widely as possible.  As of writing this, there were 259 people attending this event (and 1300 people invited!).  Two hundred and fifty-nine people who have committed to do something lovely for a stranger today.  Two hunded and fifty-nine people who are thinking about you.  Two hundred and fifty-nine people who love you and want to honour your life.  Two hundred and fifty-nine missionaries of compassion and generosity. Two hundred and fifty-nine of your friends and disciples in caring.


I think you’ve discovered the secret to immortality, my friend :)


Motivational Monday: Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is the first person I can ever remember being obsessed with.  I got hooked on his children’s books when I was first learning to read on my own, and I remember devouring them with intense dedication until I learned that I had read them all.  At the time I was too young to understand his adult fiction, but I nevertheless read his autobiographies (Boy and Flying Solo) before moving on to his collections of short stories, like Skin, and did the best I could to make sense of the material.

What I love most about Roald Dahl is his deep appreciation for the value of silliness, and his amazing ability to see things with a child-like perspective in terms of what matters.  I think that this quotation contains a terrific kernel of inspiration for the week: remember your deep wells of potential.


Happy Monday!

April Fool’s Day

April Fool’s Day is a week away, which gives you seven days to prepare!  I’ve never been a big fan of pranks – maybe because my parents were always smart enough to thwart our efforts to plastic wrap their toilet, etc. – but I love the idea of kind-spirited fun that surprises and delights rather than offends.

I’m still not sure what tricks, if any, I’ll be playing this year, but if you’re looking for some inspiration for your own shenanigans, check out the links below:




You’ve been flocked! (by The House that Lars Built)
April Fool’s Mini Lunch (from Oh Happy Day)
Balloon Bunch (from Katie Sokoler)