The Gift

Eleven years ago, my kidneys shut down. My death was averted through the miracle of organ transplantation. At least that’s how I felt about the disease that killed my mother but which can now be treated with dialysis. I sent my friends long, happy-hysterical, picture-filled word documents in the aftermath of my euphoric battle with death. My attacker lay strewn along the beaches of Sanibel Island, desiccated by the sun and eaten in tiny mouthfuls by sand flies.

I was dancing the gift of life. My body hummed with electricity. “Nature without check with original energy”, as Whitman would put it. Or it might have been the high doses of prednisone :)

Oo wa ditty

I dedicated my time to that gift. I saw it everywhere and tried my best to record and share it. I had a mission. I wrote a personal mission statement and took up photography as if I hadn’t left it (I had, for twenty-five years).

But death has a way of changing his tactics. We compare ourselves, becoming quick to anger, judgement and pointless debate. It eats away at simple joy, filling us with rage and frustration. It attaches itself to the soul like barnacles, waiting to apply the coup de grace.

Blue salt
Salt and ice eating its way through metal in a blue Toronto winter

I know we all feel that way sometimes. Not just me, but so many I’ve known and loved and others I’ve loved from afar. Reaching back for a mission statement is the last thing to do. I know where my mission statement is – on my desk in a folder I don’t have the heart to open. Better not compare oneself with one’s better self. Maybe it’s the loss of my dear friend Melanie after a seven-year battle with ALS, Death’s ugliest swordsman.

Mel and Jojo
Melanie in better times, delighting and being delighted by my daughter

Here’s something I’ve revisited. It often works for me. I hope it works for you.

Song of Myself (partial, 1892 version)



I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.


Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,Leave of Grass

Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,

The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.


I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now,

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world…..


I read a wonderful definition of a bore recently. Having passed the age where I can accurately quote or recall the author, here’s my butchered version: “A bore is someone who robs you of your solitude without leaving the consolation of company.” Emmy, though not human, was the opposite: she was a constant companion who guarded my solitude. This post is my memorial to her.

Emmy at Barrys_sm

Emmy passed away last night. Not peacefully, but full of anguish, in stark opposition to the life she lived – a life of gentle grace at home, and boisterous play at the park. I held myself together until my wife cried “thank you” to her lifeless body. Then I held it together by listing all the things she taught me. I was struck by how much there was to learn.

Every day you don't have to go to the doctor is a great day
Every day you don’t have to go to the doctor is a great day
Em_pleasure in the grass_sm
Every moment you get to spend outdoors is brilliant
People are awesome. They can do anything
EMandB_in snow
Snow is unbelievably cool
Someone in a tree_Emmy_sm
Patience pays dividends
Every stranger has potential
A little space and time to relax is a beautiful thing


Little brothers are a pain until you get used to them

all's well
When someone is sad, they need your company
Hug back. People respond in kind
Emmy in action_sq
Treasure every moment
Here’s her last video
My dog at just that time in the morning

Not For Sale

I wear a ring on my finger that says Not For Sale. Actually, it  falls off in the shower and I have to keep reminding myself to put it back on. So my favourite strategy is to put it on my keyboard, where I found it a moment ago.

Not For Sale Ring

All of which reminds me of our trip to Thailand in May, where we worked in a Thai orphanage and filmed the people who run it. This video, embedded from Not For Sale’s current campaign, is a wonderful introduction to the amazing kids, staff and organizers who we worked with:

To call it  a memorable trip is a cliche, perhaps a masterpiece of understatement. The chief organizer, Kru Nam, founded the orphanage with children she rescued out of the brothels 0f Chiang Mai. She also made my ring, all of which is a story well worth telling.

Kru Nam with my wife Annette and two of my photography students. NB: These girls did not come to the home via sex trafficking

Kru Nam is an artist. She had only just graduated with a degree in fine arts when she started working with street kids. She wasn’t prepared for the disturbing content of the art they made, and yet her response was extraordinary. She began walking kids out of brothels. After getting 25 kids out, brothel owners threatened her life. She moved north of Chiang Rai, and began building an extraordinary village and an organization called The Volunteers For Children’s Development. She all but left art. But lately her work has been underwritten by the Not For Sale Foundation, which has given her a little time to get back to her jewellery practice. The ring pulls all parts of the story together.

Belonging is the idea that most touched me during my stay. Rather than “fix” kids, Kru Nam’s genius is to let them be, surrounded by 125 brothers and sisters.

We expected to find wounded kids. We expected trust issues, in particular. And we did see kids like that. But we were entirely unprepared for the vast majority who showered us with affection and honour. I miss them to no end today. These are the kids we met, taught, loved and learned from. And if you feel the urge to help them, check out Not For Sale’s current campaign. I gave today because of the lessons I learned watching Kru Nam at work. Here it is: You can’t change the world; but everyone can contribute to picking up some of the pieces.

Lorbea, Aka, Brothers
Three of my favourite little rascals, proudly showing off in front of the library.

If you’d like to learn more, check out “Not For Sale”, David Batstone’s exciting book that launched a global movement.