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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

I stopped taking photographs about eight years ago. Well, that’s not entirely true as I admit to reaching for my cellphone camera when my photogenic and very cute granddaughter is unaware of my movements. I should have written that I stopped taking photographs when we are vacationing, walking along wooded trails and rocky shorelines or enjoying nature in our backyard gardens.

Why, you ask? How will you remember a sunny vineyard view in the County, an evening stroll with your husband along the Millennium Trail, the backyard birds visiting your feeders?

Like many changes we make in our lives, it began as a journey – literally. As a military family we enjoyed postings to wonderful places, including Germany, Vancouver, Kingston and Montreal. We took advantage of our weekends and vacations to explore the communities and surrounding areas, snapping photos to ensure we’d remember special moments with special people in special places.

So, when my husband and I began chucking out many years of accumulated stuff for our final move before a retirement home – I think this is called “downsizing” these days – we were faced with sorting through thousands of photographs and trying to work out where to store them. The first sorting was easy – duplicates were the first to go. The next round was a tad harder – people whose names we’d forgotten or unflattering snaps of ourselves and friends. The third sort involved half-heartedly tossing out photos of pictures of trees, rocks, ducks, waves, waterfalls and wildflowers – all favourite photo subjects of ours. The few remaining thousands were carefully filed in indexed photo boxes. We started to do the same with all the digital photos stored on CDs, our computers and cellphones with less success. It was just too much – too much work and too much stress.

Enough! I decided. No more photos for me. I can’t deal with the pressure of trying to choose which to keep or which to toss as well as adding to boxes of stuff we may never look at again. And I don’t need to look back on our lives through the rear-view mirror of photographs.

This decision came just about the same time as I uncovered in another one of many boxes our daughter’s well-worn copy of the picture book Frederick by Leo Lionni. I read through it with tender thoughts of how we enjoyed the story and planned to share it with our then infant granddaughter when she was old enough. Frederick is a little field mouse who, unlike his mouse family busily storing seeds and nuts for winter food, gathers sun rays, colours and words. When all the food supplies are exhausted during the cold winter, Frederick tells his family to “Close your eyes” and with lovely poetic words, he brings back the warmth and colour of summer to the mouse family suffering through the difficult time.

I now think of myself as a Frederick. I savour moments for what they are in the present. Scrambling to find my cellphone camera in my purse, coercing reluctant family members to line up for yet another group shot, constantly looking out for a Kodak moment, and lamenting a missed opportunity for a fabulous photo, are things of the past. I collect sun rays, colours and words. I think this is called “mindfulness” these days. I was on to it years ago and now during this difficult time when my supplies, like those of the field mouse family, are exhausted, I draw on my stores of warmth and colour.

Recently, my husband and I were bemoaning the fact that, a year ago, we had spent 10 days in Barbados and we were not going to be able to get away this winter. I leaned back, closed my eyes and before long I could feel the sand under my feet as we took our early morning stroll on the beach, heard the surf beating against a rocky promontory in the distance, and watched a crab scuttle sideways toward its hole in the sand. I could taste the salt spray as I licked my upper lip. A lovely, relaxing calmness wafted over me and I was less sad about not going to that lovely place. I think this is called “visualization” these days. I call it “thought walking.”

Though I am sitting or lying with my eyes closed, “thought walking” is not a passive experience. Actually smelling sausages smoking in the butcher shop of our favourite German village is not passive. Neither is hearing the chimes of bells on the quarter hour from the parish church a block off the Marktplatz. The startle of tripping on a cobblestone. The pleasing smooth fruitiness of a local riesling. The fog dreamily lifting from the Black Forest hills just beyond the village walls. As I “thought walk” from my favourite chair in our living room in Canada, I am placing one foot in front of the other, pausing, turning, listening and, yes, treasuring, this special place in our lives. It gives me peace and pleasure. It is both life-savouring and life-saving at the same time.

When I told my husband about thought walking, he gave me a strange look. ‘That’s okay,’ I thought unkindly, he’ll never be a Frederick. Annoyingly snapping photos is simply his style. When I mentioned it to my daughter who is a doctor, she nodded and said, “It’s guided imagery these days, Mum.” I mentally rolled my eyes. My good friend said agreeably, “Aren’t memories great?” She didn’t get it either. Thought walking is none of the above. But when I described it to my meditation leader, she thought it was a wonderful term – and so do I.

From my stores of sun’s rays and words, colour and warmth, I close my eyes as Frederick does and I savour the best of my life once again.

Wendy J. LeBlanc lives in Picton, Ont.

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