Contemplative photography

Photographer and restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr introduced me to the term “contemplative photography”—a way of using the camera to slow down, practice mindfulness, think imaginatively and renew myself.

Working and living in a neighborhood wrestling with drug addition, rapid development and displacement, I find daily walks with dog and camera to be a good way to wind down and remind myself of what's ordinary.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Wandering the cemeteries is a New Orleans tourist pastime. The light and shadow of crumbling upright tombs are so beautiful. In a corner of the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District, someone had left a script of King Lear open to the page where Cordelia, rejected by her father, bids farewell to her selfish sisters:

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,
Who covers faults, at last with shame derides.

Good morning, America

Michelle and I took the Crescent line from Philadelphia to New Orleans. The ride is kind of a forced retreat: 25 glorious hours where you can't do anything but read, write, play games on your phone and wonder who lives beyond the back yards and scrap yards clicking by outside.

But Amtrak has a kind of forced socialization policy, too. If you want to meet a few of the people from the other side of the glass, go to the dining car. Parties of one or two are seated at tables for four, facing strangers.

The only morning we were brave enough to dine, we ended up eating pancakes and sausage across from Tony, a volunteer guide with the National Park Service, and Judy, an Atlanta retiree training for his job. We learned that there's a Trails & Rails program that started in New Orleans in 2000 and grew into a year-round partnership with Amtrak. Today National Park Service guides hop aboard more than a dozen Amtrak routes to point out cultural and historic sites along the way. We picked up brochures on music history, civil rights and natural resources and followed the listings by mile markers and Google maps.

Torajan burials

As part of Paulus Paramma’s three-day orientation to traditional Torajan life and customs, we visited two ancient burial sites, Ke'te' Kesu and the Londa Graveyard. Each included tongkonan—the Torajan ceremonial houses—and sheer cliffs peppered with caves that contained coffins and effigies of the deceased, in various states of decay. Where there were no caves to hold bodies, coffins were cantilevered over the cliff face on wooden frames. Where the frames gave way, bones and broken coffins were recovered and stacked along the base of the cliff.

Ke'te' Kesu has been in use by the same family for 10 generations. It contained a variety of cliffside graves as well as contemporary mausolea.

Torajan houses

In addition to elaborate funeral customs, Torajans are known for maintaining a caste-based society, where “blue-blood” members of the community demonstrate their status (and support the local economy) by building distinctive horn-shaped ceremonial houses called tongkonan. Traditional tongkonan are constructed without metal hardware, and are used to display the horns and jawbones of animals slaughtered in family ceremonies—also a sign of status. At least two water buffalo must be killed to consecrate a tongkonan itself.

Torajan funeral

Toraja is both a distinctive ethnic group and a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. To a large extent, Torajans are known for death. Funerals are an important focus of community life, lasting for several days. Depending on a family's social status and the stature of the deceased, they require the slaughter of dozens of pigs and water buffalo, and the construction of a small village of temporary bamboo structures to host hundreds of guests.

Because funerals are astronomically expensive—a prize water buffalo can cost $60,000 US—funerals are delayed for months or even years until the family can afford them. In the meantime, the deceased is embalmed, referred to as "sick," and included in daily household activities in a kind of extended wake that boggles the North American mind.

Paulus Paramma, a Torajan friend of my cousin, Greg, invited us to his family home near Makale, the capital of Tana Toraja Regency. While there we had the opportunity to attend the third of a four-day funeral for the sister of a family friend.

What we did not see were 12 rounds of water buffalo fighting on the first day, the slaughter of buffalo on any given morning, dancing in the evening, or the burial on the final day. What we did witness was preparing and butchering pigs, distributing meat to neighbors and guests and cooking and eating delicious buffalo and pork, all with the backdrop of a stunningly rugged mountain farm.

One of Greg's colleagues at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University delivered this TED Talk about Torajan funerals in 2013.

Watching water

I'm always amazed and grateful when I learn something new and astounding about the world I've lived with my whole life.

This is how I feel about spotting satellites (yes, on a dark night you really can see those dim masses of technology orbiting above us) and standing eggs on end. (They say you can only do it on the solstice, but with patience, the yolk will settle to the bottom and an egg will balance upright on a flat surface, any time of year.)

This is how I felt when a 7-year old taught me I could curl my tongue, or when I discovered the left side of my jaw bone is ridged like a small bicycle gear.

And grateful amazement really was my first reaction when my wife suggested I might be, at least slightly, on the autism spectrum. Besides feeling near-constant overstimulation, having trouble with transitions, and processing some social interactions rather mechanically, I love watching water. Cats and autistic people, apparently, love to watch slow-moving water.