In the final weeks of my daughter’s pregnancy, she seemed delighted that I would wear three hats during her labor: mom, doula, and photographer. The morning after Ava was born, I was eager to return to the hospital. Although my role as doula was done, my role as photographer had only begun. By the time Ava was born, I was so sleep-deprived from three consecutive nights of compromised sleep that I forgot to play around with my camera settings and do what needed to be done in low light, handheld situations without flash. Now that I was rested and had my photographer wits about me again, I yearned for another chance! And of course, there is no joy like holding a newborn!
I was eager to photograph Ava before she left the hospital and became adorned with the fashionable layers of this world – clothing and props that would cover her essence and make her look more of this world than a sweet mystery just arrived from who-knows-where.
Before leaving, I glanced at the living room window and noticed snowflakes floating down so gracefully, glistening like diamonds. It reminded me of a tear that ran down Ava’s cheek soon after she was born. From a particular angle with the ambient lighting as it was, it looked like a silver river trickling down her cheek. That was my instant association when I noticed the snowflakes glistening so silvery and bright in the morning sunlight.
I went outside to head to the hospital, and when I got to my car noticed that the snowflakes landing on it were well defined. It was an ideal time to photograph snowflakes!
I watched one snowflake fall from the sky and land on the frosted car window and wanted to photograph it instantly, before it was affected by its surroundings. When a snowflake comes in contact with other snowflakes or a surface kissed by warm sunlight, it quickly changes and loses its pure form. I wanted to photograph snowflakes right when they landed, before their lovely mandala essence dissolved.
And then I realized how extraordinary it was that this was happening when I was on my way to photograph a newborn baby. Could there be a more perfect visual analogy? Gazing into the windows of a newborn baby’s soul and observing the exquisite, six-pointed mandala pattern of a freshly fallen snowflake evoke a sense of awe and wonder. Both are sights to marvel at.
I had attempted to photograph snowflakes for the past two winters and never had such a rich opportunity. What a gift to wake up to such delightful snowflakes that morning! And what a gift to hold Ava and look into her eyes, which were like dark, infinite pools. Cradled in my arms, she looked around as if taking in the great mystery that surrounds her and wondering: Where am I? What am I? Meanwhile, I was beholding the great mystery I found in her eyes, wondering: Where did you come from?
For a moment, I imagined her passing through a veil of forgetting before entering this world. But mostly, I surrendered to the mystery. Held it in my heart and let it fill me as I floated in the peaceful pools of her eyes.
And that’s why there’s no joy like holding a newborn.
A few mornings ago, feeling emotional after waking from another “visitation” dream of my deceased mother, I went outside to see how much frost needed to be removed from my car before I could leave for work. There was a layer of frost, but clinging to the frost were thousands of snowflakes – an unexpected visual delight I hadn’t seen all winter! There was very little time left before I needed to leave, but I took out my photography gear and spent about five minutes reveling in the beauty of the patterns of the snowflakes magnified through my macro lens. It was a world that so easily could go unnoticed. Either you get up too late, after it already has melted away, or you start defrosting or scraping without seeing such tiny details – for instance, stacks of delicate snowflakes as captured in this image:
Every snowflake in a sprawling blanket of snow, and every drop of water in the ocean, is precious.
The catch is that you have to train your eyes to see such miniscule wonders. Or perhaps your eyes are opened by grace in a given moment because it was time for you to see. There is a sermon inside every snowflake if you look at it the right way and are receptive to its fascinating secret.
Each year, a tree produces hundreds or thousands of leaves. If you look closely, you will notice that every leaf is imprinted with the pattern of a tree.
And consider our bodies. Inside our bodies, there are multitudes of cells being generated, living, and dying, just like humans on planet Earth. At a cellular level, dramas unfold through reproductive processes that take place silently and secretly – processes of which we are not conscious. Every single breath is a spectacular event – perhaps like a roller coaster ride or a story of transformation from the perspective of oxygen molecules – but we are largely unaware of the rhythm and process of it as we go about the business of living our lives.
There is so much taking place, so much to be revealed to us if only we look more carefully or employ tools that help us to zoom in and see beyond what we can perceive with the naked eye. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, zooming out provides us with insight about how everything fits together into something larger than itself.
Becoming aware of the universe that exists inside each human body makes me wonder: If we were to zoom way out, are we like infinitesimal cells inside a larger being that we are too small to perceive? And could that entity be but a single cell in something even larger?
These thoughts have been building over the past several days and are blowing my mind this morning! A few days ago, I came across a video (which is absolutely worth three and a half minutes of your time) based on a gargantuan, panoramic photo released by NASA of the Andromeda galaxy. The video portrays impressively our place in the vastness of the cosmos. For me, the timing was perfect.
Prior to seeing the video, I had been revisiting a vision I had a while back of a vast wall covered completely with a sprawling, painted canvas. But the masterpiece painted on the canvas extends far – perhaps infinitely – beyond the boundaries of the wall. Somewhere on the vast wall is a postage stamp sized frame, and if you look inside the frame you can perceive familiar forms – perhaps sky, trees, houses, and figures of people and animals. We humans are the size of pin heads in relation to this postage stamp sized frame, and we take it all in, make what sense we can, and to some degree think we understand the meaning of what we see inside the tiny frame. This miniscule masterpiece (that is a small part of a larger canvas, that in turn is but a small portion of a possibly infinite canvas) represents our perception of our human lives. But what we can perceive – the part that falls within the postage stamp sized area – isn’t as it appears if you zoom out. Doing so, you see that the individual forms inside the frame extend far beyond the frame and are parts of much larger shapes and patterns.
It’s like taking the sensation of standing at the edge of the ocean or on a mountaintop and magnifying it a thousandfold.
We debate and argue about the meaning of the forms we perceive within the confines of the postage stamp sized frame – which is all our conditioned minds can see. We blame and/or venerate others, exalt ourselves for our perceived successes, and/or rebuke ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and failures – thinking or even fearing that we know The Truth.
But how could we possibly know?
From a wider perspective, perhaps events that seem confusing or tragic on a personal level serve a larger, higher purpose in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps they offer us the gifts of awakening and evolving. Perhaps the biochemistry we inherit or the personal losses that throw us off balance and feel so jolting are actually spiritual blessings. Perhaps we need to extend our perception through time and space to understand this and to realize how inherently connected we are to other forms, beyond the extremely limited frame of human perception. Perhaps doing so will help us cultivate serenity, love ourselves more fully, and in turn live more authentically.
How would it change your life to believe – truly believe – that you are not broken or deficient in some way? That who you are at your core is the light of the universe, imprinted with the pattern of the galaxies? That you can access this higher power at any time by focusing on your inner light?
At some points in the school year, learning themes sync up so perfectly that the rich threads connecting them simply beg to be elucidated. This is the case right now as our study of snow overlaps with our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unit. Diversity and tolerance are the major themes that run through both units.
This week, I watched on DVD Wilson Bentley: Snowflakes in Motion, an hour-long movie about the life of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer who became fascinated with snowflakes at a young age and was among the very first human beings ever to photograph a snow crystal, after years of trial and error. His passion for snowflake photomicrography made him a pioneer in the field. He took pictures of more than 5,000 snow crystals and asserted that no two snowflakes are alike; each one is unique. Wilson Bentley celebrated and shared the beauty and diversity of the thousands of snow crystals he photographed so the public could appreciate them – and so their brief existence did not go unnoticed. Here is a short video that shows several of the images he captured:
After watching the Wilson Bentley video, I fell asleep thinking of the aesthetic and transcendent beauty of snowflakes and how each snow crystal is an exquisite mandala. I woke up in the morning excited to introduce the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to my students by exploring the diverse beauty (beautiful diversity?) of snowflakes. I couldn’t wait to show my students images of myriad, unique snow crystals, balanced with a discussion of the properties shared by all snow crystals. The next day, we would consider both how human beings are diverse and what we all have in common. I’ve never linked our January learning themes like this and couldn’t wait to give it a try. It brought to mind the following, previously shared quote from “Mister” (Fred) Rogers:
“As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.”
Reconciling our uniqueness with an appreciation for the uniqueness of others is important work. This is described by some as “tolerance” and others as “acceptance.” It is about respecting our differences. Here is another quote from Mister Rogers that came to mind after being dazzled by the images of several dozens of snowflakes in the video – and impressed by the painstaking care with which Wilson Bentley photographed individual snowflakes so they could be seen by others:
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
Watching the Snowflakes in Motion video, I was struck by the idea of how much joy, fulfillment, and meaning Wilson Bentley’s dedication to snow crystal photography brought to his life. This passion stemmed from his love and appreciation of the natural world that began when he was a child. I related strongly to his discovery of tremendous beauty in dew drops, frost, and other evanescent natural phenomena that are so easily overlooked. When you do look and notice, you can’t help but wonder how you never noticed before! Beauty truly is everywhere if you keep your eyes open and slow down enough to perceive it. In Wilson Bentley’s own words:
“There is a need of a greater love for, and appreciation of such things, of the beautiful and wonderful in nature… There are oceans of enjoyment, soul satisfying pleasure to be had in Nature’s art and beauty, as shown freely to us in the common things all about us.”
Yes, yes, YES!
Yesterday, I was with my students on the playground and was drawn to a willow tree towering above us on the other side of the fence. Its slender, golden branches swayed gently against a vivid, blue sky. It looked like long hair blowing in the wind and was so beautiful. I felt the rhythm of my breathing become deeper and more relaxed as I tuned in to the here-and-now channel. Then I noticed some small evergreen branches that had fallen to the ground. I picked them up and inhaled their fragrance deeply. A few children noticed me holding and admiring the evergreen branches and came over to look at them. They noticed “baby pine cones” growing on the branches. And then they looked for evergreen branches on the ground and brought some inside for our nature table. Word of the “baby pine cones” spread, and there was a flurry of children around the nature table, trying to catch a glimpse of them. That was the most authentic and gratifying lesson I facilitated all day long.
Back to snowflakes…
My kindergarten students get so excited when snow is in the forecast and when they glimpse snowflakes falling from the sky. They also love magnifying glasses. To help them observe snowflakes, I plan to provide them with frozen swatches of dark cloth and magnifying glasses the next time we are outdoors when it snows. We also will cut paper snowflakes and notice how each child’s snowflake is different.
Similarly, we will learn about skin pigmentation and notice that nobody’s skin is actually white or black; we come in all different shades. In past years, I have had children mix paints to find their own skin tone, or compare their skin tone to paint cards and determine the closest match. We come up with descriptive names for our skin tones after getting ideas from picture books, such as The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney, and Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Some years, we use “multicultural” skin toned paint, construction paper, or crayons to create self-portraits, using different colors and textures of yarn for hair.
We round out our discussion of human diversity by talking about how we all experience the same feelings; have hopes, dreams, and fears; and live our lives as passengers on “spaceship Earth.” The topic of snow is part of a larger study of the water cycle and the changes water goes through, and we learn that we all share the same water that gets recycled, over and over.
As a postscript, I would add that Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have another, very personal, common thread, and that is my grandmother, who was born on Dr. King’s birthday and raised on a Vermont farm. She has been gone for more than two years now and would have been 94 today (January 15th).