Christmas Walks with Michael Wood by Fiona Wiseman

M&F

Michael’s Christmas Day walks in Toronto are legendary to anyone who knows him. He published a book a few years ago that chronicled the first three years of his perceptions on these walks – ‘A Walk on the Wild Side’.

The images from the walks are like he’s just landed on Planet Earth and he’s looking at it for the first time. We get a fly-on-the-wall experience of what it’s like to be him, walking around in his hometown like an alien exploring with curiosity and gentleness.

Michael’s photos range from people in the subway to Bok-Choy steaming in a Chinese restaurant, to the billboards at Yonge and Dundas, to the crazy, glorious mess of Kensington Market to the mannequins on Queen Street. There is no agenda or subject matter or point he’s trying to make —it just is what it is. For me it’s a celebration of being alive, of appreciating the world with fresh eyes. It’s a continuous stream of basic goodness in the world. 

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Photo © Michael Wood

I’ve been lucky to accompany Michael on these walks the last two years. I’m usually in Toronto visiting family at this time of year, as is he. 

Apparently, I have the unique distinction of being the only student who has been on these walks with him in Toronto, so Michael thought it would be interesting for others if I shared my thoughts. 

First off, Michael and Julie have been my teachers of seeing for the last six years. They have taught me how to visually appreciate the goodness of the world and renewed my love of photography. They also make me confront everything that gets in the way of seeing – my propensity for speed, impulse, and ambition. I’m not alone – we all have these predelictions that get in the way of seeing the world in a direct and spacious way. And, now that I’ve started teaching, they help me pass it on to other people. 

All of these qualities come up in one way or another when I walk with Michael. Let’s start with speed. Michael is one of the world’s slowest walkers. It’s not like he can’t go fast because I’ve seen him cross a busy intersection when he has to. He just chooses to go slow and lean into it. Put the clutch in, as he says. 

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Photo © Michael Wood

Going slow is easier in Toronto on Christmas Day because the normally busy city takes on a completely different vibe where you don’t have to negotiate traffic and pedestrians. The last time I saw him in December, it was a reminder of how I need to slow down. 

And, address impulse, the close cousin of speed. This is the “I’ll get this over fast, just start blasting away, so I can get on to my next visual jolly.“ It’s almost like you took a drug that makes you see, and you need another hit, instead of just staying with it and really looking. 

As Michael says, next up on the runway of obstacles is ambition. I’m no stranger to this. I was telling him about a particular situation the day before I saw him, where I went nuts. I was in an environment that was very rich, a total field of perception and I failed because of all of those things – speed, impulse and ambition. Every single obstacle came up but ambition was a big one that day. I was thinking about all the great perceptions I was going to get in there, and it completely prevented any ability to be relaxed, spacious, and lean in to the atmosphere, and therefore the ability to have authentic or clear perceptions. 

M & Mannequin        M
Photo © Fiona Wiseman                                           Photo © Michael Wood

Ambition arises on another level on these walks with Michael. I’m with my teacher, I could give in to the need of trying to impress him, maybe I could have more awesome perceptions than he has…Ha ha, AS IF. Or what if he thinks my images suck? That’s a whole other issue. 

If I’m having a contest with him, I’m going to lose, and there’s just no point to it anyway, so I don’t even go there. This sometimes manifests in me just following him around, taking photos of him, and observing what he does. 

There’s a reason Michael tells students to practice as a solitary activity. When we do it with another person a competitiveness can arise. Who can have the more awesome images? Julie refers to this as Sport Miksang. 

So, I just give it up, which is also freeing to just watch what he’s doing. I enjoy his company, take some photos of him, observe what he’s doing, sometimes have a perception of my own, but I don’t take as many photos as I do when I’m on my own. I’m certainly not going to take the same photographs he does. What would be the point in that?

However, sometimes we have the same perceptions. Sometimes they might happen simultaneously, sometimes I might have photographed something that caught his eye the day before he saw it, so sometimes I say why the hell didn’t I see what he saw? 

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Photo © Fiona Wiseman                                              Photo © Michael Wood

One day he commented that I wasn’t taking many photos, He jokingly asked, was I leaving all the perceptions to him? Yeah, I kinda, sorta am. He would definitely have more perceptions than me, but what struck us both, was that there are certain and frequent perceptions where we both go OMG. 

That led us to a discussion about maybe it’s not a subjective exercise, that there might be an objective reality to some perceptions that just jump out at you, when you are really looking. Some things, some people, some scenarios are just more vivid – you can’t not look at them. Or maybe it’s just us because we’ve synched up our eyes, minds and hearts. If you’re like the vast majority of people, you don’t look at all. That’s why this way of seeing is such a gift on so many levels. 

During the walks, we have good conversations that run all over the map – our conversations go from the importance of man-bags and his search for the perfect one, family, teaching Miksang and childhood injuries (we sat on a bench where he shared a particularly horrendous incident at a skating rink). And, we always go for lunch at Swatow in Chinatown and we always order the same dishes. One day after Christmas, we did another walk and had lunch with Michael’s lovely daughter Sarah. 

One particular incident touched me. Michael spotted a distressed pigeon on the sidewalk on Queen Street, he commented the bird looked like it was about to leave this world, and he silently chanted Om Mani Padme Hum. As Michael chanted, another bird joined the one who was dying. Michael said – well, that’s good, he’s got a friend to keep him company. 

M & Pidgeons

Photo © Fiona Wiseman

I’m grateful to have a friend and teacher who lets me to hang out with him on these journeys through the streets of Toronto.

Fiona Wiseman
January 7, 2016