Eyes of Compassion

People who are special are very good at making other people feel special. It’s a well-honed talent which has it’s roots in humility and kindness.

Joyce Hayes was a master at making others feel special. Although she just recently passed, she left a flotilla of people in her wake who, thanks to her generous heart and love, have come to believe in their own goodness and specialness. In her time, aside from raising children of her own, Joyce lovingly fostered over 80 children in the San Francisco bay area and was once recognized with the Congressional Angels in Adoption award in Washington, D.C.

I met Joyce Hayes in the transformational cauldron of Love that is Glide Church in San Francisco. I may not be a Christian, or much of a believer in any form of God outside of a belief in the goodness within all of us, but the theology of Love and radical inclusion at Glide drew my heart and voice to sing to a greater glory in the Glide Ensemble gospel choir for nearly a decade. With the death from AIDS of my dear friend and choir mate Rosevelt Winchester, I found myself chairing an arts scholarship fund for Glide youth in his honor. A great benefit from his passing (isn’t there always something received when those we love are taken away?) is that I was able to work in steering the scholarship fund alongside Joyce who was managing the Janice Mirikitani Family Youth and Child Care Center at Glide. As such, I got the chance to spend much time with Joyce in her open-door office where a steady stream of interrupting kids were always welcomed, listened to, hugged and genuinely reflected with a healthy dose of love.

In 2009, I asked Joyce if I could photograph her for a photographic project I was undertaking which I was calling the Eyes of Compassion. The photographs here are from that project. I encourage you right now to take a minute and look into her eyes in the image above. In connecting with her gaze, you may find it difficult to escape without feeling loved, cared for and accepted.

I’ve come to believe that the only real thing that makes our individual lives a success is the extent to which other people feel loved by us. It’s not about how successful we’ve been, or even how generous we’ve been with the various forms of success we’ve been granted. True success is measured in our ability to love others to the point where their inherently human self doubt surrenders to a belief in their own goodness.

For many years, due to the joy, love and enthusiasm she’d share with me upon seeing me, I believed that I was particularly special in Joyce’s eyes. Eventually I came to see that many hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people, through Joyce’s generosity of spirit, likely came to feel the same way. Joyce had a heart that somehow learned the truth to the paradox that the more it loved and the more it shared that love, the greater its capacity grew to love yet more.

Thank you Joyce for helping so many including myself believe in our own inherent goodness. You are missed yet very present.

The End of Goodness?

Like many of us, I emerged into this world with a strong moral code. You simply do the right thing. Period. The obligation of true adulthood is that you speak the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, and allow that spoken truth to set life’s wheels in motion for whatever order and consequence naturally and appropriately unfold. You do as you say you will, follow through on your commitments, help people up rather than pressing them down, and choose and use your words carefully, ensuring they reflect accurately that which you know to be true.

In childhood, the primary influencing power that truth and goodness might otherwise have is often broken on the schoolyard when a bully emerges and asserts, no matter how wrong he may be, that his might makes him right. He then wins the fight, for that is what bullies are best at, and dictates an unnatural order upon all who sit back in fear, silently stunned. When I was a child in the 3rd grade at Alessandro Volta Elementary School in a European immigrant neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago, I remember being at the schoolyard one Saturday. Unlike the hyper-guarded, play-dated children of today, I had wandered the few blocks to the school of my own young accord. It was a typical city public school playground where whatever grass that existed begged its existence through the cracks in the asphalt surface. A semblance of blacktop order came from a painted-on baseball diamond, 100 yard dash racing lanes where Timmy Van Ryswick ran blazing speeds without swinging his arms, a pair of hopscotch tableaus and a collection of welded steel contraptions which served as swinging and climbing apparatuses. That day, one of my young neighbor friends who was in the 2nd grade was brought to the schoolyard by his father so he could be taught to settle the score with another boy. This man set his son loose to fight, but as his young charge began to lose, the annoyed father jumped into the fight and hit the other boy himself, bloodying his nose and sending him scurrying home in tears. Might clearly did not make right, although, as it so often does, it managed to dictate the order on the schoolyard that day. I’ll never forget the incredulous defense of the so-called father, when questioned by another adult who arrived on the scene with the previously-bloodied boy: “But I only hit him once!” Even at eight years of age, right and wrong can be glaringly self-evident, and this was decidedly wrong.

With Trump’s inauguration as President and the corresponding ascendance of mistruth and distortion to the mantle of our country’s schoolyard, I sense the wrongness of it all. As I did when I was young, I want so badly to believe that goodness, truth, fairness and kindness are the ultimate ordering forces of this world. I want to believe that our guides can be a kind word, a concern for our fellow humans, animals and planet, and a desire to speak the truth and strive for that which is good and right. Unfortunately the successful application of lies and manipulation, bullying and belittlement, and threats and rationalizations are infiltrating and stretching the moral fibers of our society.

I understand and truly believe that many among us are justified in having great dissatisfaction with our political system and for the way so many are disregarded by our government. I also understand how that dissatisfaction can lead to a desire for change. What confounds my senses, however, is how so many can casually turn a blind eye when presented with a concatenation of lies, a parade of ungrounded personal attacks and the open demeaning of women, disabled individuals, and those who choose to speak their truth in this land whose foundation is rooted in the exercise of free speech. Has goodness, being kind, speaking the truth and ordinary humility been reduced to something that we no longer value?

I so want to believe that goodness remains our primary inspiration, arbiter and guide. Much like when I witnessed a “father” bloodying another man’s young child on the schoolyard so many years ago, I’m left somewhat stunned, head tilting a little to the right, scanning my mind for disparate synapses that might yet link together into a rationalization of how something so blatantly out of sync with the basic tenets of morality could win the day while perhaps allowing for goodness to one day again prevail.

Escaping the Kinetic Bounds of our Birth

We are to a large extent what our parents make of us. While of course we are all magnificently unique beings, and have varying degrees of agency in terms of how we live our lives, it is hard to deny the effect that our upbringing has on the eventualities of our beliefs and ultimately our lives. I came across the child pictured above at a festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal in the summer of 2016, his
mother grasping him by both shoulders from a crowd and shuttling him sideways to stand in front of my camera. As I look at this image, I am struck by how much a product of his environment this boy is and quite likely will become. The beads, the garments, the hat, the hands clasped in prayer, all are remarkably different than would be present if this child were born in another part of the world, or perhaps simply to another family across the town.

It takes immense energy to escape the kinetic bounds of the culture of our birth. The greatest determinants of our religious beliefs, for example, are where we are born and the religious practices of our families. People may believe that they are living the one true path to their ultimate salvation, but in all likelihood that path is simply the one upon which someone has grasped both their shoulders and placed them. In terms of profession, in places such as India and Nepal where there are strong caste systems, the family name you are born with is sometimes the primary indicator of the work that you do. Even if you aren’t born in a formal caste system, the greatest determinant of whether you will go to a university is whether or not your parents attended one. Parental experiences and choices all too often lead to their reappearance in the lives of their progeny.

I am blessedly an amalgam, decending from people who came from different countries, cultures, professions and religions. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, Catholics from Ireland and Germany; photographers, artists, musicians, independent business people. Even my parents migrated within their own lives, with my mother veering from small town midwest America to tour as a singer with jazz bands, live and perform in NYC and eventually settle in Chicago. My father started in Chicago but eventually chose to live in diverse places such as a rain forest in Puerto Rico, the Himalayas, a 35′ sailing ketch for many years, an island in the Caribbean, and more recently in more remote Northern Thailand. Coming from parents and grandparents with these diverse backgrounds and experiences, and who were courageous enough to follow their own unique callings, has made the kinetic constraints of my origins less amplified.

Those who experience the benefit of living in multiple places and being exposed to diverse people and beliefs eventually come to understand that the insularity which comes from a lack of such exposure can breed bigotry, unhealthy nationalism, and closed-mindedness. If we are lucky, we wake up one day to discover that what we believe and who we have become have been startlingly determined by forces other than our own free will. From there, gradually, trip by trip, place by place, interaction by interaction, question by question, conversation by conversation, book by book, experience by experience, we break free of the beads of our culture, the garments of our parents, the hats of our community, the God toward which our hands have been clasped in prayer, all of which we now realize that we are blissfully free to discover and choose, or not choose, for ourselves.

Photography and Training the Soul to See Beauty

I’ve been enjoying photography for most of my life now. Some might even call me a “photographer” but to me, it’s simply one of my many things I love. I’m hesitant to accept the formal “photographer” label, preferring to allow photography to move through me rather than fitting myself into a mold of what that word might mean.

105A6408I’m again in Nepal, and I’m lucky enough to say it is my fourth time here in the past two years. My primary work here is with the Nepal Orphans Home and its affiliated Chelsea Education and Community Center. Yesterday, after helping prepare food for the poor here with Curry Without Worry, I wandered the streets, alleyways and markets outside Durbar Square with my camera, taking photographs in between Kathmandu’s monsoon raindrops. I managed to take a couple of sweet portraits including this one of the apple/pomogranite vendor with his bicycle and the one at the top of this post of a young pregnant girl selling produce. My heart felt very tender toward her and her gentle, quiet way.

105A6549The following morning I hired a driver to take me to Bhaktapur, an historic old town about 15 minutes outside of Kathmandu. He was a good man, with a kind eye, a quick laugh and an easeful patience. In trying to explain to him the kind of photographs I like to take in hopes that he’d have some suggestions for other places we might go, I told him I like to photograph “life,” but that’s a little broad, I know. It’s not easy for me to describe what I photograph and as a result, the best locations he could suggest were the typical places popular with tourists: Swayambhu aka The Monkey Temple, the stupa at Boudhanath, and the Pashupatinath Hindu temple. All amazing places to go but I’ve been to them all more than once on previous journeys and I wanted something more ordinary, more everyday. So in this process or trying to explain, it became obvious to me that I simply like to photograph what I find to be beautiful. Not only is it difficult to describe, especially to the non-photographer, but in truth, I won’t recognize it until I see it myself.

Photography has the wonderful ability to open my senses to the perception of beauty. All objects and people are simply that, objects and people. Some of us might have a spiritual belief that everything has an inherent beauty to it, but to me, everything simply is as it is, no more no less. When something appears to someone as being beautiful, it is because their soul is simply and touchingly being impacted. The experience of beauty is entirely and uniquely within each of us.

105A6520You can see how difficult it might have been to direct my driver this morning. The best I probably could have articulated would have been “Take me to the place where I am most likely to encounter things that I would personally find to be beautiful,” but that most certainly would have proven futile. As we drove, the early morning sun rising in our direction would occasionally reveal a magical silhouette or other divine glare and I’d beckon a quick stop which often extended into a not-so-quick stop. Eventually we made it to Bhaktapur where I love to wander the streets. Outside of the mountains, Bhaktapur, the seat of one of the ancient Nepal kingdoms, is a perfect place in Nepal, bristling with Nepali life and history.

sistersI was a little nervous coming back to Bhaktapur as it’s my first time returning here after last year’s tragic earthquakes and I feared seeing too many collapsed buildings in the places where I had taken some portraits which have become dear to me, like this one of two girls I met here last year. Even though I may only meet some of my subjects one time, my relationship with them continues to deepen as I connect with their image again and again over time. I can begin to feel close to them. I was pleased to find that although many homes were gone, a great majority of the largely mortared-brick home structures of this town remained.

I even was lucky enough to photograph a young boy for the second time, this time a year and a half later. I wasn’t certain until I got back and compared the images, but it’s the same boy without a doubt. He has wisened up since last year, pressing for 100 Rupees rather than settling for some candy.


So what I’m trying to get at here is that photography has a way of connecting me with the beauty of the world and this lifetime. As such, every time I look through my eyepiece or walk around with my slightly-too-heavy camera bag slung over my shoulder, I am training myself to see beauty. You can’t
really teach someone to see beauty as it isn’t simply a visual thing, and it certainly isn’t a logical thing. It’s really a development of the soul. It is so easy to move through life distractedly, but when you walk your world with a camera, you are practicing the art of seeing beauty. 105A6560Beauty arises in the sacred confluence between the physical world, the visual sense, the mind, the heart which is touched by what it has come to love, a connection with the perfection of the present moment, and an overarching sense of wonder. The real benefit to photography is that it trains the soul to learn to see beauty. Thus, even without camera in hand, the world becomes a more sacred place.

105A6797I’ll be returning to Bhaktapur tomorrow with a few of the girls from Nepal Orphans Home who have shown an interest in photography. Teaching photography, aside from all of the important technical aspects of composition, exposure, focus, and depth of field is, to me, largely a spiritual teaching. Can we connect with more than merely what we see or what we think we see? Can we learn to connect to our own presence within the moment? Can we allow enough sensitivity to our own soul to recognize that which touches us? Can we truly allow our awe and reverence to arise and move through us? Can we learn to engage our camera’s shutter release at precisely the moment our heart/soul is most touched?

Here is the artist’s statement from my photography website which speaks more directly to what I’m trying to write about here:

I take pictures,
when the mood strikes me
or when I see something
or someone

I’m not one to stage things,
preferring life as it unfolds
scenes as they unveil
people as they unmask.

Our human nature wants to
know the bounty of this existence.
Without beauty, there is no bounty
only sufficiency.

What you see here
is a sounding of the beauty
which plucks a harmonic
of my own soul.
A grasping, I suppose,
to hold to that beauty
and express who I have come to be
and share what I have come to know.

Photography supports my humble attempt
to leave the confines of my mind and
move into a space
of greater connectedness within the moment.

In that moment,
this moment,
there is
nothing that is not beautiful.

I returned to Bhaktapur with three of the girls from the orphanage where I taught them what I could about photography, from the technical to the spiritual, from composition to photography as personal reflection of one”s own unique experience of beauty.
After we 105A6895returned and reviewed the images, I walked each of them back to their homes (each girl is in a different one of our four residences, a few blocks apart). As I walked the last of the three girls to her home, she paused and said something which touched my heart and made me feel like the day was a complete success.

“Look!” she said and she pointed to a break in the bulging gray clouds where a virtuous patch of blue had broken through. “Look how beautiful!”

Manifestation and Returning to Nepal

En route to Nepal again, this time with a plane change in Taipei and an overnight in Bangkok. I’ve travelled rather extensively, especially in recent years, and in the lead up to my departure, people often ask if I’m excited about my trip. The truth is almost always that my excitement
really doesn’t kick into gear until sometime after my travels actually begin. On this trip, I was in the waiting area at my gate at SFO when I glanced over and saw the board at the opposite gate announcing a flight to Istanbul. The world can seem so large and unreachable on a day to day basis, and then I saw that sign at the airport and remembered that all it really takes is an airplane or two to be once again immersed in that seemingly unreachable world. A flutter of excitement took hold in me and I knew my travels had again begun.

In recent months, I’ve been lolling about in the lap of love with my new sweetheart and as I notice the excitement building for this time in Nepal, I recognize that there are many different pulls in life: forces, desires, energies that move me (and all of us) this way and that in our lives and in the world. I’ve somehow managed to forge a life for myself which allows for various movements and creative energies to flow. As I was meditating on the plane on the first leg of my trip, I noticed a strong sensation of strength in my belly and a broadness in my chest. It was unmistakably the arising of the quality of “capacity.” While moving “into the world,” as this trip and my travels often feel like, I am sensing my capacity. I don’t know quite how to explain it really, but it is empowering. This arising sense of capacity is reminding me that the expression of my work in the world is very important to me. By the time I post this, I’ll be back in Nepal and returned to Nepal Orphans Home where I’ll be assisting for a couple of weeks with various educational and organizational development projects. I’ll also also get to reconnect with many of the 130+ children there and hope to continue to develop a mentoring role with some of the young adults there as they continue to find their personal paths towards self-determination and independence.

A key word you’ll often read in this and other posts on this site is “manifestation” (enter the term in the search bar here and you’ll see what I mean). The more I’ve studied myself and my motivations, the more I recognize that manifestation is perhaps the underlying driver for my life and for much of human life. There is a force in us all which desires to become not only more than we already are, but as much as we are capable of becoming in this lifetime. It is the place where the spiritual (which includes our inherent desire for selflessness and personal betterment) meets the survival (the instinctive forces that give strength to our drives). That force or desire for full manifestation unfortunately gets muted in many people, either because they come to doubt in their own abilities and capacities, they don’t believe in their inherent deservingness, or because their lives end up becoming overly focused on day-to-day responsibilities and survival. When people have mid-life crises, or crises at any age, it is often because their wheels of manifestation get stuck in the mud and there is no release in sight. When we start to realize that we haven’t achieved or accomplished as much as we had hoped, we either double down on the distractions in our lives or kick and squirm in hopes of extrication and the possibility of greater personal manifestation.

There are a four primary facets to this diamond of manifestation: Service, creative, spiritual and relational. Some would rename that first facet to professional rather than service, but for me, my most important professional manifestation is now in the realm of service. I’ve had my business engagements through my adult life and I think the modicum of success I’ve had there has allowed me to check that box. Manifesting creatively is also important to me, and that continues to move and grow, from photography to piano and performing to my food blog to woodworking. I do have some interest in expanding my photography more professionally, perhaps leading travel photography workshops in places like Kathmandu. My fermented food blog also continues to grow, just yesterday crossing the threshold of 3,000 email subscribers.

So manifestation is not just about growing, it’s really about becoming, becoming all that we were meant to become. While we all continue to grow and learn, every human manifestation is different, as each individual is uniquely different. We all have different inherent capacities/loves/passions and we all are exposed to different familial, cultural and socio-economic opportunities and influences.

Valentines Day 2015 065And so this drive for manifestation again brings me to Kathmandu where my service work feels far from complete. It has become clear to me over the past few years that being of service to something larger than myself is critical in terms of my own manifestation. I feel very blessed to have come upon an organization like Nepal Orphans Home which is founded on love, service, selflessness and integrity.In NOH, I have found a home where my skills and capacities are appreciated. It is also a place which touches my heart, where I feel loved and valued and where my love and support can naturally flow.
you are loved
As a fun side note, while reading some of my older posts here that mention the word “manifestation,” I ran across “Shoulds” and the Rumblings of Manifestation from 2010. In it, I mention the following “rumbling:”

“I do have fantasies stirring about in me of running an orphanage somewhere or building a school in a remote corner of the world. That kind of project I find very stimulating as it connects more to my heart as well as uses my practical, more worldly skills. Who knows what, really, but the rumblings are there.”

I hadn’t remembered that my orphanage thoughts had gone back so far until I re-read that, but I love how faint distant rumblings can unfold into the manifestation of the life we end up living and the person we end up becoming.

Sisters Day 039