Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Breathtaking Cinematography of Louie Schwartzberg

"Throughout my life, nature has always been my greatest mentor." 
-Louie Schwartzberg

We are in the midst of another gray slump. This time it's rain. Finally, winter is melting so spring can push through. I actually have dug through the snow on more than one occasion to try to find evidence of that, beyond the daffodil shoots that have been visible in a sheltered, snow-free area outside my classroom for nearly a month. I want to see purple crocuses pushing through the snow! My mom told me she has been checking her garden every day (since hearing about my classroom daffodils) for signs of her flowers coming up.

Not yet. But soon.
 
It has been a very long winter. In my third attempt to capture an image every day for an entire year, I've photographed sunrises and sunsets, frost, mist rising from the river and hovering like a magic carpet, back yard birds, shadows, and food. (Food photography tends to be the answer when I'm in a pinch. And I realize what a blessing it is to have food on the table.) When I'm outdoors steeped in wonder and awe, I don't feel the cold. But I am ready to move on. Done with winter.


During this gray and muddy time of year, my spirit has been nourished by the magnificent films of Louie Schwartzberg, my favorite cinematographer. Every film Louie offers the world - whether free online (see my list of links, below), on Netflix, or available for purchase through his website -  is absolutely amazing. The way he (first notices and then) slows down or speeds up what happens in nature reveals a rhythm and dance that we couldn't perceive otherwise. His images are love letters that open windows to profound perspectives of the world around us.

Louie has been filming time-lapse flowers 24/7 for more than 30 years - the only cinematographer to do so - and this was my introduction to his work. Viewing his macro imagery of the graceful dance of flowers opening, closing, and repeating these movements awakened something in me. It might even have awakened my passion for photography a few years ago. His skill goes far beyond composition and technical mastery to capture the spirit of his subjects - the energy and connectedness of all life. 

Cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg (photo provided)

I watch Louie's films to awaken wonder, and also to relax and recharge. His films truly are visual meditations, and when I watch them, I notice my breathing becoming slower and deeper and my heart rate slowing. I even have measured how my blood pressure changes when I view his moving images. (The systolic number has been known to drop more than 20 points!) When I feel stressed and want to relax, his films are good medicine. And when my outlook mirrors the grayness of my surroudings, his films reawaken wonder and gratitude for all the hidden treasures in the world. I am immensely grateful to him for these gifts. In a recent Facebook post, he wrote:
"Take a good look around.
No matter what you're looking at, it's only a fraction of what's actually around us."

And how true is that? There is so much more than we perceive in the course of our everyday lives. Louie's lenses focus on images that are too tiny, too slow, too fast, or too high to perceive normally. His images invite the viewer to enter a whole new world. He speeds up the rhythmic dance of the flowers and the motion of clouds or stars moving across the sky, slows down the flights of hummingbirds and the crashing of ocean waves, rises into the air to take viewers on journeys over extraordinary locations, and zooms in to reveal a whole world of virtually invisible wonders right at our fingertips - all via vibrant, breathtaking images steeped in wonder, gratitude, and awe.

As a teacher, I also appreciate the value that Louie's films offer my classroom. When my kindergartners have high energy that needs to be brought down a few notches, or when I am feeling overwhelmed (and realize that if I'm feeling that way, they must be, too), showing one of Louie's films on our SMART Board works like a charm. The children are enchanted by the images and inevitably want to respond to them and discuss their own experiences in nature - which makes my heart happy because I believe the heart of all learning is a reverence for life itself and strive to connect my students with the natural world. My students have been stuck indoors for recess almost all winter long because it has been too cold to go outdoors, and our jam-packed Common Core curriculum leaves us with less time during the school day to explore outdoors. I appreciate how Louie's films continue to connect my students with the natural world even when we cannot experience it for ourselves, up close and personal. And I imagine my students won't look at hummingbirds, bees, flowers, butterflies, etc. quite the same when they do notice them in their environment. Louie's films facilitate awareness and connection. They also give my students a much needed "brain break" during our busy, academically-oriented days.

Speaking of academics, Louie's films enhance our science content greatly. For instance, I intend to use his DisneyNature film, Wings of Life, to teach my students about the pollinators. I also intend to weave together science and character education by using some of Louie's insights about bees as examples of cooperation and community, and the forest as a model of diversity. This more holistic approach encourages children to recognize aspects of their own selves reflected in nature, which I believe fosters connection.

Louie Schwartzberg is an award-winning artist with a mission to share the wonders of nature and help heal our planet through a shift in consciousness. Through his art and insights, he is also a teacher of gratitude and mindfulness. The child of holocaust survivors, he was taught to appreciate life's small blessings, and gratitude is an indelible aspect of his artistic vision. On April 6th, he will be featured on Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday" series discussing "how focusing on nature's beauty can help us experience a deeper spiritual connection to the world around us."

Every day, I take a moment to give thanks for all the beauty in this world, whether I experience it directly or through the generosity of others, such as Louie, who feel called to share the imagery they have captured. Shared images remind me that, although my environment might be predominantly gray-scale at this time of year, so much goodness exists in the world nonetheless. Sometimes this reminder is the greatest gift you can give someone! 

The first thing I did to kick off the weekend yesterday afternoon was to watch Louie's film, Chasing the Light: A Filmmaker's Journey to Extraordinary Places, which I ordered via his website. The film was mesmerizing and inspiring, just as I'd expected. It lifted my spirits on an overcast, foggy evening and moved me to take my camera out for a ride along the river (thinking that very act could serve as the definition of "optimism"). Here is an image I captured in what I am tempted to call my "Embrace the Suck" series:


Obviously there are good reasons why Louie Schwartzberg doesn't live in the Northeast. But you've got to find beauty where you are, and his images inspire me to keep looking because there's always more to see if you look carefully enough!

To experience Louie's films for yourself or to become part of his online community, check out these resources:

In addition, a number of Louie's films are available for streaming on Netflix, including: DisneyNature: Wings of Life; Moving Art: FlowersMoving Art: Oceans, Moving Art: Deserts, and Moving Art: Forests. All are extraordinary.

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The photographs in this blog (with the exception of the photo of Louie Schwartzberg, which is not my image) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Putting the World on Hold

Life has been so full and intense lately, and this week I hit the wall. Too many appointments, school events, and obligations, and not enough sleep and solitude. The combination of a full moon and St. Patrick's day on Monday (when my kindergartners insisted there were leprechauns in our classroom) - after a busy, sleep-deprived weekend - was, in itself, enough to do me in energetically after barely leaving the starting gate for the week.

Needless to say, I learned a thing or two about my breaking point, and also about the necessity of self-care.

The first thing I did was take a day off in order to rest and recharge my depleted batteries because I knew that if I didn't, I'd be absolutely no good to anyone in my orbit - and might also wear down my resistance to the point of being more vulnerable to all the viruses going around. I slept in, was able to schedule an appointment for that afternoon with my therapist, took a walk outdoors, and took it easy. The next day, I returned to work full of energy, enthusiasm, and presence. However, I realized that I still had a strong need for solitude and considered going on retreat for the weekend. But I didn't feel that a proper retreat at a retreat center was feasible, so my husband and I came up with an affordable, convenient solution: I would have the house completely to myself for the weekend, to get the solitude and space I needed so desperately. He arranged to stay with his parents for the weekend. My ex-husband also was eager to help out by being our son's home base and transportation for the weekend.

Friday afternoon arrived, and before doing anything else, I visited my parents since I wouldn't be able to for the rest of the weekend. On the way home, I stopped for a take-out salad from the salad bar at the health food market. My son was still home when I returned. Nonetheless, it felt as if I had arrived at a private retreat cabin! There was something very special and different about the energy. Simply setting an intention and arranging to have space to myself made a difference! The space felt sacred and welcoming.


My son left, and I cleaned the kitchen to make it look more like a retreat environment. I started a fire in the wood stove just as I would have done on retreat, made a cup of lavender-mint tea, lit a stick of incense, and turned on a cascading water fountain. Aside from the soothing sound of the fountain and the crackling of the fire in the wood stove, all was quiet.


My soul was smiling like the breaching dolphins I had encountered in a recent dream. It felt so right to create this space for self-nurturing. I had no agenda other than to get to bed early as I always do when I go away on retreat, work with my dreams, write, meditate, and get some exercise. I also would unplug from technology for the weekend, except for using my laptop to write and to view or listen to content that supported this inward journey.

It was surprising how different my living space felt. This was now a dedicated space for going deeper within and hearing my soul speak, free from distractions. I knew exactly what to do - what felt right. Two things that were obviously different from a retreat center retreat (besides the familiarity of the space) were: 1) the clutter and dust, and 2) not having anyone to cook for me. But I realized that doing chores such as light dusting and cooking were part of this particular retreat process. I found, for example, that when I was dusting, a specific dream image from the previous night came to mind, allowing me to identify the core element of the dream that I needed to focus on.

While making tea, I had insights about the nature of fear and the role fear plays in my soul curriculum. While making the bed, I had an insight about synchronicity and noticing.

Normally, I might have similar insights but more distractions preventing them from penetrating so deeply. Instead, I was able to sit with them and allow them to take root.


I read a book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander, stopping to reflect on the content and what arose in me as I interacted with the text. I wrote down the insights that came to me. The book, recommended to me two days prior, was mind-blowing and reinforced much of what I've been experiencing lately through dreams and images. I read it from cover to cover - something I haven't done in as long as I can remember and wouldn't do on a "proper" retreat, but which felt enormously important.

I watched a breathtaking video of flowers blooming. Made tea. Added another log to the wood stove. Made lunch. Took a walk in the woods. Meditated. Before falling asleep, I listened to a Ram Dass talk that a friend had suggested recently. There were no pressures whatsoever, despite report cards being due in less than a week. I knew that creating this space was more important than anything else. It was a necessity. And when it was over late Sunday morning, I would welcome my husband back home and return to my daily responsibilities with fresh energy and insight and restored balance.

I was pleasantly surprised that I could go so deep despite the clutter and routine familiarity of my retreat space. It was different than a "proper" retreat in a dedicated space where spiritual, healing energy had a chance to accumulate. But it was absolutely perfect given the constraints I needed to work with, and I am grateful to those who rearranged their schedules and whereabouts in order to make it possible.

What made this time different from other time alone at home is my commitment to putting the world on hold for a while by not thinking about or engaging in worldly concerns that diminish my energy. Report card deadlines, for instance. I did not have that gray cloud hovering over me during this time, encroaching on my peace of mind. Even at home.

I recommend the experience highly and intend to build more retreat space into my life on the weekend. I used to have a nice rhythm going, but then life got a little more "real" so to speak, and it became easy to overlook the need to slow down and create sacred, nurturing space. I learned this weekend that doing so is immensely rewarding and important - for myself and everyone around me.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

In My Own Back Yard

My husband has warned me of the dangers of continuing to share snowy, wintry images at this time of year, for this has been a long, cold winter, and the general consensus is that winter can go away now, thank you very much, and let spring take hold.

Nonetheless, I'm going to risk it...

We had a mixed bag storm this week with snow, sleet, and ice. By the end of the day, after the storm had ended and the sun came out, I found myself in the middle of the woods filled with awe and gratitude, and I can't resist sharing the beauty with you.

Once the precipitation had ended, I heard birdsong outside the window as I sat indoors by the wood stove appreciating the warmth. I have noticed more birdsong lately, which (literally!) is music to my ears. When I stepped outside, I noticed several flashes of red darting about our snow-covered back yard. Cardinals! Lots of them! I adore the sight of bright red cardinals against the whiteness of winter. So I set up near one of the bird feeders and enjoyed the show as all sorts of birds came and went - some squabbling, others coexisting peacefully.





Meanwhile, the robins congregated in the corner of the yard next to the kayak shack.


All was well and good. I went back inside, content with the back yard birds being the subject of the day. But eventually the sun came out, and the treetops glistened with ice still clinging to the branches. And then I knew there was more to see.

I took a 15-mile drive along the river to see what I could see but didn't find anything worth stopping to photograph. I thought of Dorothy's reflection in The Wizard of Oz about not needing to look beyond her own back yard for her heart's desire - as it occurred to me that perhaps my own back yard was precisely where I would find what I was looking for. Why hadn't I answered the call of the glistening trees and gone into the woods in the first place?


It was a white and sparkling world in the forest, silent except for a woodpecker nearby and the delicate sound of ice-covered tree branches blowing gently in the wind. The trees were like crystal chandeliers, glistening.


And then...oh, my! I was surrounded by such breathtaking beauty that I didn't feel the cold.


All was Yes and Thank You.  

And Oh. My. God.

As those words escaped my lips, I thought of something my favorite filmmaker, Louie Schwartzberg, said during his TED presentation on Nature, Beauty, and Gratitude:

"When people see my images, a lot of times they'll say, 'Oh. My. God.' Have you ever wondered what that meant? The 'oh' means it caught your attention. It makes you present, makes you mindful. The 'my' means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And God? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we're connected to a universe that celebrates life."

That is exactly what it felt like to be in the forest that afternoon.


Yes, our polar vortex winter has been very long and cold. Yes, we are ready for spring. But to be in the middle of the divinely glistening forest filled my heart to the brim with gratitude and awe.

The sun was setting, and it was time to return home. As I followed deer tracks through the forest, I thought of a line from Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet:

"The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

Yes, sorrow has carved deeply into my being during this long, cold winter. But it has carved a well capable of holding so much joy. And that joy is my fuel. I go in search of it every day with a grateful heart. Every day, despite all the sorrow. And then I need to share it so others will know that the possibility for such joy and beauty exists.

Even when I am not steeped in the beauty of nature, I can pause to sip from the well of joy by recalling beautiful imagery and the way it felt to be there. Imagery is very powerful and can induce a relaxation response as if I were there in person.

May we find beauty and goodness where we can today and every day. It's out there waiting to be discovered. And when you find it and immerse yourself in it, nothing else exists. No worries. No fears. No sorrows.

Imagine that.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Images That Speak

A few months before he died, my friend, David, gave me a two-year gift subscription to Joan Chittister's monthly publication, The Monastic Way. Each month's pamphlet features a different work of art and invites the reader to sit with the painting and read it with a "listening heart" while contemplating the following questions:

  • What does this painting say?
  • What does this painting say to me?
  • What do I want to say to God through this painting?
  • What difference does this painting make in my life?
  • What feeling or thought or word does it evoke? 

The Monastic Way employs art as a doorway to spiritual contemplation and is the perfect gift for me. It has inspired me to ask similar questions of images I find in dreams and nature. For instance, earlier this year I dreamed of sunlight shining through the frost-covered branches of a willow tree. It was the most beautiful, gripping image, and I wanted desperately to photograph it! Several weeks later, that image still calls to me. Realizing that it's unlikely I will come across a frosted willow tree at this point in the season, today I did a Google search for sunlit, frosted willow trees and was transfixed by one image in particular. Once again, I'm grateful that someone took the time to capture and share an image that calls to me from within but eludes me when I search for it in the outer world. Because of this person's generosity, I can sit with the image with a grateful heart and contemplate the particular significance it holds for me.

Other times, images aren't so elusive, and I find them even when I am not looking for them - or when I am looking for something else. I never know when it will happen, but if I'm walking in nature - with or without my camera - something inevitably will stop me in my tracks and fill me with awe and gratitude. It could be anything, large or small. But when something calls to me like that, it always stops me in my tracks, quite literally. My husband has learned to deal with this little quirk of mine when we are out walking for exercise. Once I stopped for about 20 minutes to capture sunlight illuminating a leaf that was standing on its side on the roadside.


The oak leaf kept blowing gently in the wind but did not fall and lay flat like the other leaves around it. It stood alone and allowed the sunlight to shine through. Something about that resonated deeply in me.

And then there's the tree that stands alone, silhouetted so magnificently by the setting sun. When we drove past it one evening (as we had done countless times before), my husband commented that he loves that tree. That's all it took for me to fall in love with it, too, to the point of becoming fixated on mapping out angles, weather conditions, and times when it was most striking and photographable - for once I noticed it, the image spoke to me so strongly that I couldn't stop thinking about it and needed to capture and share it.


What does this image say?

What feeling, thought, or word does it evoke? 

How does it awaken me?


On a recent, solo walk I came across the following image, which stopped me in my tracks:


Three milkweed pods. One is empty. It opened and released its seeds to the wind before winter took hold. The other two pods are still full of seeds. Whereas some of the long, white hairs attached to the seeds are still fairly silky, most are wet and matted and therefore cannot be released into the wind. And the matted ones are pressing on the silkier ones, keeping them stuck in the seed pod.

As I stopped and gazed at this sight, I thought of my mother, who continues to live with advanced pancreatic cancer. I thought of her life and how fully she has lived it. She loved her work - early on as a flight attendant and then as an executive assistant at a performing arts center for three decades. But despite how much she loved her work, she'd always dreamed of being a nurse. She even went to nursing school part-time when my children were little, as she continued to work full-time. Eventually, she withdrew from the nursing program because she felt it got in the way of her spending precious time with her grandchildren while they were young. Time she realized she could not get back.

However, after she retired a few years ago, she became a hospital volunteer. And then she had a new dream: To learn to play guitar so she could share the gift of music with the patients she visited. Well, she didn't miss a beat! She found a teacher and became a serious, dedicated student. Her life began to revolve around guitar, and her teacher became one of her dearest friends. Not only did she play for her patients, but she also mustered the confidence and courage to do open mic performances! Her energy was youthful and abundant and ever so inspiring. She was on fire with new passion in her mid-70s.

Music had always been so important to my mother, and when my siblings and I were growing up, she made sure we had music lessons for whatever instruments we wished to play. It was very important to her that we could play an instrument, and of the three of us, I was the one who took it most seriously. Playing piano became a fundamental part of my identity, and I know this brought my mother great joy. However, when I began to lose interest and move on to other endeavors, I think it was quite a loss for her. All along, she had an inner musician longing to come out like those milkweed seeds still stuck inside the pod. She made a career of working with world-famous musicians and supported her children's involvement with music. But finally, she learned to play guitar, and that made all the difference. And what's even more inspiring and impressive is that she used her musical passion and talent in service of others.

My mom is like the empty milkweed pod that has opened and allowed her seed dreams to be released into the world. In the process, she has inspired many who have witnessed her. (In fact, I, too, want to learn to play guitar.) It is a beautiful thing when silky seed fairies hitch a ride on a gentle wind, for they were made to travel beyond the protective confines of their pods, to give birth to new possibilities and fulfill their potential.

The image of the milkweed pods inspires me to consider what seeds are still waiting to be released from within me so that, when all is said and done, I can say with sincerity and gratitude that I have lived a truly fulfilled life. Also, how might I support others in opening and releasing their gifts to the world? May each of us open and let go of any fears and doubts that prevent us from sending our seeds into the world so that when we come to the end of our lives, we are lovely, empty pods with seeds sown as far as the gracious winds of our lives will carry them.

Just like my mother.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Asked for a Dream, Found a Poem

Saturday was my birthday. Friday evening before falling asleep, I asked for a special dream message for the year ahead - for in past years, certain birthday dreams have held great significance. I think of them as birthday gifts from my higher Self.

I dreamed of a partly gray, partly blue sky with interesting clouds. As usual in my dreams, I couldn't retrieve my camera in time; by the time I found it and headed outdoors, the clouds had changed, and I noticed some dredging equipment passing by on the river in front of our house. I realized it was the first day of another dredging season, and that made me very sad. I woke up sobbing.

Not exactly the kind of dream I was hoping for. But it was a sunny (albeit frigid) morning, and it wasn't long before I knew exactly what to do next: Take a walk along the river. The insights I had during my walk, and the way I felt as a result of being alone in nature, helped me realize that nature would be my medicine and would support me through whatever real or metaphoric dredging may occur this year.


Some poems whisper through the air, and I catch them in a net, fully formed. Other times, I string insights together like beads on a necklace, with an eye for patterns. The latter is how the poem (below) came about. It feels as if the dream was incomplete on its own and needed the poem to complete it. It's about longing for one thing but finding something else.

Later that morning, I noticed one small tree covered with hoarfrost by the dam. It was the only tree anywhere I could see that was coated with frost. But that little tree called to me from across the river, and I had to get a closer look, so I strapped on my snowshoes. Once I got as close as I could, there was a lot of brush and a huge drop (involving icy water) between the tree and me, so I wasn't able to photograph it, but I kept snowshoeing and discovered other intriguing sights that I wouldn't have seen if the tiny, frosted tree hadn't lured me in that direction. Longing for one thing and finding something else was the clear theme of the day. And how interesting that the clouds I saw while snowshoeing looked very much like the clouds in my dream...


The First of March: A Birthday Poem


I set out in search
of a snowy owl
but found a robin
chirping sunrise song
high in the treetop
and an unseen woodpecker
drilling in the distance.

I walk, heart longing
for a certain thing
then stop to wonder:
Am I seeking
in the direction,
at the angle,
through the sense
that offers the best
perspective?

Sometimes the crunch
of our own footsteps
drowns out such life
and delight!
May we remember
to stand still even
in the deep chill of Winter
and Listen
beyond what we want to hear,
be still and See
more than we are looking for —
and receive the unexpected
offerings revealed.

This morning, I searched
for a landscape
and found a song,
asked for a dream
and found a poem.

It is the longing
that sends me deeper
into wilderness and solitude
than I would go otherwise:
The blessed longing
that opens my senses,
propels me to communion,
and fuels my life.

-Susan Meyer



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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a "custom print" in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.