Cameras, joy and staying awake

Some days, I just stumble along in a half-awake daze, not really engaging or interacting with anything. Later on, I will try to remember that day only to come up with a blank. I can remember nothing about those 24 hours I lived through beyond a few vague impressions, because for every second of that period I was on auto-pilot, not waking up enough to order my brain to remember.

Yet, when I go someplace new, do something important, or visit a place that inspires me, I can look back and remember so many images. This is because I was awake to my surroundings and engaging and ordering my brain to notice and see.

Then I realised – I can engender this sense of sharpness, of aliveness, simply by carrying a camera. Obviously, I don’t wander around the house or supermarket – or into business meetings –  with a camera clutched in my sweaty hand, but when I am doing something or visiting somewhere I want to remember, where carrying a camera is not only permissible but a must, then the eye of the lens really does come into its own.

Simply staying awake to picture opportunities makes it more likely I will spot something interesting I would otherwise have missed. Such as the sign for Milkmaids Passage in Green Park, London.

Milkmaids Passage, off Green Park, London

I was looking at the Georgian houses lining Queen’s Walk when I spotted this sign – a sign that the friend I was with hadn’t registered. In fact, he hadn’t noticed that a passage existed, let alone the fact that it had such a romantic and rural name.

All too often we trundle along, never looking up or around, never seeing the glories that surround us, inhabiting our own little inner world and wondering why nothing interesting ever seems to happen to us? Why we never seem to meet the interesting people mentioned by others? Why life only seems to happen to those others?

It is because we do not engage. We do not seek outwards beyond our own skins. We do not live dangerously by letting the mask slip, just a little, so that others can see the jewels hidden underneath. It is because we are sterile creatures of wary habit, unwilling to risk all so that we may truly live. Harsh? Perhaps so: but consider now the most alive person you know and then think on how they are always ready to interact, to share, to exchange, to learn, to grow. They retain a childlike curiosity and wonder the rest of us suppress. They treasure the child within, let it show them the way.

Stained glass windows,  High Kirk of Edinburgh

Stained glass windows, High Kirk of Edinburgh

Had I not been gazing at the glorious stained glass windows of the Thistle Chapel in St Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh (more properly known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh) with my mouth open in wonder, my awe momentarily open to all who saw me, I would never have got chatting to an inspirational young man fighting cancer with dignity and humility. I never learned his name, but he inspired me to not take life for granted and, indirectly, I owe this blog to him. To his courage in looking at what could be a very short rest-of-his-life with fierce joy and a determination to fully live it around a demanding therapy timetable. The picture above will forever be tinged for me with a faint sadness and with everlasting joy and gratitude.

“There”, I thought, in imitation of John Bradford, “there but for the grace of God go I…” *

Notice, witness, be present, live.

Carrying and using a camera – being aware of the potential for a jaw-droppingly, earth-shatteringly beautiful image that will speak to everyone, or a picture that will be meaningless to most but that will whisper a thousand images into your mind every time you see it – sharpens your attention and heightens your awareness of your surroundings. Helps you to stay alive to the moment, the emotions, the beauty, the pain. The image in the lens becomes a microcosm of life, a stepping stone that marks the path to being truly alive.

“But what about the Milkmaids Passage?” I hear you cry.

No one knows for sure exactly why this passage has been given this name – or at least, I could not find a reason in any of the sources I consulted. My own particular theory, however, is as follows. Green Park used to have a herd of milk cows – a rural fancy for the urban Londoner. For a small fee, the maids attending the cows would milk them and provide their customer with a glass of warm, fresh milk, direct from the teat. I rather like the idea that this custom was immortalised in an obscure little alleyway off the park. I am, in all probability, completely wrong, but until somebody can point out, quite definitively, the true derivation of the name, I will hug my little romance to myself, a signpost to a day’s compass where I remained awake to every grace.

What signposts do you treasure?

* John Bradford was a Protestant who, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London for crimes against the Catholic Mary I (Mary Tudor), saw criminals being led to their deaths and spoke his famous line, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” He was burnt at the stake on 1 July 1555.


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