Tonight I watched the moon rise. I’ve watched the sun rise. I’ve watched it set. But I’ve never watched the moon rise.
I’m on day seven of Sam Harris’s app-based Waking Up Course. I’ve been listening to each meditation lesson and then immediately doing the guided meditation. Yesterday I thought it would be nice to listen outside. So, listening outside again tonight, and still outside as I write this, I watched the moon rise.
Today’s mediation lesson was about death and how awareness of death makes us more cognizant of each moment of life. I am not afraid of death. I read and write about it periodically and have come to understand that death needs to be seen as part of life; it’s not a separate entity. (Impactful reading on this topic includes Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and The Five Invitationsby Frank Ostaseski.) As I listened to Sam Harris talk about the moments that we forget to experience because we’re caught up in other moments, I watched the moon. And, with that in mind, sat in silence when the six-and-a-half minute lesson finished and kept watching.
I had never watched the moon rise. Not once. And today I did.
We have only one finite life and I am slowly realizing how much of mine I’ve just let pass by. How many experiences I haven’t had because I’m not paying attention. How many genuine connections with others I’ve failed to actualize because I’m preoccupied.
So tonight I watched the moon rise. I experienced it. I was there.
I do a lot of writing that no one ever sees. I write a lot of letters. Dear you. From me. Many of these letters remain in my journal but I also have a Google Doc titled, “What Not to Say”. The letters in that document are usually a little more formal, a little more polished. Typing allows me to edit whereas writing by hand sometimes leads me down a rabbit hole to places I didn’t want to visit. But the letters that I actually send or pass on are always handwritten. If it’s important enough to say and give to you, I don’t want to make changes. Sealed in an envelope are my fresh, unedited thoughts. Think about them, if you’d like. They’re for you.
Years ago, when I packed my childhood memories into boxes, I sifted through envelopes full of letters and postcards. I read them, smiling through hasty blinks to keep back tears, reciting lines I’d memorized but forgotten I knew. I smiled at the way that person wrote “and”, the way that person signed their name, the way I still know the handwriting of my family and friends from forever ago.
I wonder which of my letters remain with their recipients.
I wonder about the letters I’ve written that I’ll never send, that no one will ever see. I keep these letters so I have them, but what’s in them worth saving? And if I won’t send them, why save them after all? Is it to have a record of what’s in my heart, a record of what I really wanted you to know? Is it just to give me something to do when I’m filled to the brim with sensations and emotions that I can’t express any other way?
Sometimes I secretly dedicate blog posts to specific people. Sometimes I write knowing a certain someone will see it or hoping it’ll somehow reach them. Once upon a time, a friend got in touch with me months after I’d published something for her. Another time, a friend told me I’d put into words what he couldn’t quite express about our interaction; everything was a little less weird after that.
And then there are the posts that I write but don’t publish, the ones that remain partially edited, often with another friend’s comments in the margins. Sometimes I realize I’m not clearly communicating what I want to say because I don’t quite understand it, either. Sometimes the ideas that come through in these unpublished posts are raw, uncomfortable, and complicated in ways that I’m not quite ready to engage with, at least not in public. And sometimes I’m satisfied having private conversations about my writing and don’t feel the need to take the discussion any further.
I was in elementary school when I started keeping a journal. I was in grade 10 when my English teacher required us to write every week. I was in my early twenties when I started writing every day, and slightly older when I started asking for feedback. Writing is a journey, a process; it’s a way of pausing, slowing down, and finding quiet in my mind and in my surroundings.
Sometimes I write for you, but more often, I write for me. I write because I think better on paper; writing requires me to make sense of my thoughts and ideas, to unravel what seems to be a whole into its discrete parts, to create concepts out of fragments. I write because the act of holding a pen to paper and watching the letters take shape is mesmerizing, soothing. I find myself distracted watching the ink flow and my breathing comes more easily than before.
That’s why I don’t always send the letters. Writing them is often enough.
Sharing my writing is taking a deep breath every time and throwing caution to the winds. Some pieces hit a wall and crash back down to Earth. Others soar, prompting reactions that delight and surprise. And still others come back to me riddled with wounds, criticized and critiqued in ways both constructive and spiteful.
Writing is thinking on paper and sometimes it’s best to keep that to myself. But writing starts conversations and that’s why I share it. Challenging conversations don’t bother me; fraught silence does.
Whenever I travel, I bring a camera. Whenever I go out to do something potentially cool and photo-worthy (i.e. hiking or going for a stroll in a favorite neighborhood), I bring a camera. And whenever I bring a camera, I expect that I’ll be writing a blog post. This habit influences what I look for, which impacts what I see and subsequently write about.
And I know I’m not the only one. When I first moved to New York, I had coffee with a couple of bloggers (literally a blogging couple – what a dream!) that I met online and we talked about feeling pressure to document, write, and maintain readership. Crafting a good travel blog post, for example, involves some planning: What’s the story I want to tell? What themes do I want to capture? What feelings do I want readers to have? What do I want readers to see or experience or look forward to? As the post builds in my head, I document accordingly. At the same time, photographing and writing about my weekend wandering when I was living in New York gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t have one.
I’ve learned some really valuable lessons throughout, like what makes a compelling photo. Seeking out those photos has encouraged me to stray from the beaten path, talk to locals, and simply to wander. But I’ve also learned that the minutiae of humanity are important to me. I spent a week in Europe in April and photographed every interesting doorframe I saw and then turned it into a framed poster when I got home. I have pictures of people’s laundry hanging up to dry from everywhere I’ve been.
Some of my favorite photos are looking over the rooftops from a few storeys above the ground. But when I take photos like these, I catch myself wondering whether they fit into the story I’m trying to tell.
As I look around, I’ve seen beauty everywhere – in the sky, in the water, in urban and rural settings. Sometimes, it’s enough to be overwhelmed by what is everywhere while other times, it’s the focus on one element that quickens the heart. I take photos of sweeping landscapes and historic village centers but sometimes the ones that I like best are close-up shots of individual flowers, rocks, or flagstones.
Visiting family in Toronto this summer, which I’ve done dozens and dozens of times, I did not bring a camera. I knew that we’d spend time walking around downtown, which I’ve rarely done because my time in Toronto is always spent hanging out with family. But honestly, I didn’t expect to see anything worth photographing. To me, Toronto mostly means the suburbs where my grandparents and some cousins live and the downtown residential neighborhood where the rest of my cousins live. I didn’t really think there was much to see. If there were, I figured I would have seen it by now.
Turns out I was wrong.
After brunch with our relatives, my dad and I wandered through downtown. We followed a guide my sister had written specifically for this occasion; she went to university in Toronto and has recently moved back there. She sent us on a walking tour of her favorite downtown spots, landmarking what we’d see with restaurants, little shops, and parks. She included anecdotes about some of her favorite experiences and suggested places to stop for food and drinks.
Turns out, I wished I had a camera. If I’d had a camera, I told my dad, I could have documented the day and written a blog post. He reminded me that I had a phone and that my phone has a camera. Oh. Right.
But then I realized something important. I realized that, in my irritation at not having my camera, I was forgetting to look around and actually see. And in that, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t experiencing what was right in front of me. My favorite experiences of all time are seared into my memory because I was present throughout; I don’t have any hard evidence to document them, but even writing this sentence has brought a smile to my face.
Had I become so focused on looking that I’d forgotten to see?
That thought disturbed me and I made a conscious effort to shift my perspective as we continued our stroll. Instead of documenting for my blog, I walked around downtown Toronto with my dad, pointing out what I thought was cool, stopping here and there to visit a shop or taker a closer look at a mural, a poster, a unique building. It was interesting to hear what he noticed and how it differed from what I noticed and it was relaxing to just take a walk without feeling like I had to tell anyone about it.
Over the course of that afternoon, I learned something valuable. I learned that while I enjoy taking photos and writing about my experiences, I don’t have to do that all the time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be present wherever I happen to be, with whoever I’m with. And I learned that I need to balance documenting a place for others and being present for myself.
When I recall my favorite travel experiences, there are no cameras. The travel moments that I treasure the most – telling stories during long road trips after dark; utter chaos at dinner in the middle of a city; stopping at a farmer’s market to buy food for a picnic that we prepared in the trunk of the car; drinking jugs of sangria outside in the winter; tasting spicy cocktails in a restaurant that looked like a forest – are documented through my memory of smells, sounds, mental images, and feelings of warmth. There’s likely something scribbled in a journal, too, and I expect that my memory and the moments themselves differ.
So while I love taking photos, telling stories, and sharing them, I’ll be doing that with a different mindset. I’ll be looking, yes, but the goal will be to see.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place