Tag Archives: monochrome

Imagine That Photography Tribe

Stripped to its Essence: the Beauty of Black and White

Editor’s Picks, Week 10 Module “Monochrome Madness”

Monochromatic photography is making imagery that has only one hue. Between black and white, the grayscale in between make up the range of frequencies in a monochromatic image. It can be warmer, with a yellow tinge, or cooler, with a bluish hue.

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Copyright Ker GL 2012.

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Copyright Einstein Lavina 2012.

Maybe the sentimentality of the classic film days and photography greats shooting in black and white makes black and white seem more gritty. Maybe this led to monochrome being a preference of photojournalism in the days before newspapers could print in full color. Or maybe it was the other way around, the newspaper photographs being the inspiration for shooters to use monochrome.

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Copyright Prima Ongsvises 2012.

But actually, monochrome is the most unrealistic of imagery. Without the color of real life, the monochrome photograph is extremely interpretive, stripping an image to its essentials.


The way in which we seek to see the world, looking for edges to find shape. Like a lens seeking contrast to focus, we are captivated by the forms without the distraction of color. We are able to find harmony in the ways the pieces of the composition fit.

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Copyright Cynthia Swidler 2012.


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Copyright Sarah Darr 2012.


If we could see in monochrome only like a motion picture camera, we would strip the image to its muse. The values of light and dark would jump out at our vision, and we choose how to arrange it artfully. Monochrome allows us to focus on only the difference between highlights and shadows. We can make a picture with just a shadow, and a patch of light.

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Copyright Cyndi Louden 2012.

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Copyright Mihaela Limberea 2012.


Monochrome allows us to add drama without color. With only the intensity of the difference between the whites and the blacks in the image, we can add a little vision and make a single image a narrative.

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Copyright Schalk Ras 2012.


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monochrome using iPhone 4s copyright Aloha Lavina

Week 10 Module: Monochrome Madness

They evoke the romance of earlier years in photography.

They remind us of iconic photographs by some of photography’s greats—Dorothea Lange, Cartier-Bresson, and of course, Ansel Adams. We’re talking about black and white photographs, of course.

When some of these iconic photographs were made, the photographer had to capture a world of color and see in monochrome.

How can we share in this great photography tradition and participate in some monochrome madness? In this week’s module, let’s find out.

What should you consider when making a monochrome image?

Design elements

Composition in monochrome images is not any different from composing color images. But since there is no color information, the elements of shape, pattern, contrast and lighting are so much more important.

monochrome using iPhone 4s copyright Aloha Lavina

A monochrome I shot using the iPhone 4s and converted using an app called Snapseed.

Shapes and patterns

Shapes and patterns are important in black and white because they are much more prominent without the color to distract from attention to them. Take a look at these samples and see what I mean.

Composing a monochrome photo challenges the photographer to visualize how shapes and patterns would affect the composition more than any thing else in it.

Here is Ansel Adam’s philosophy of capturing something visualized.



Contrast is important in monochrome because it helps us to delineate the edges of the subject and other elements in the image. Making the edges between the blacks and whites clear helps the image gain a clear composition. There are many ways to achieve contrast in making black and white images.

One is by dodging and burning. Dodging and burning is a technique from the film days that involves changing the brightness of bright parts and darkness of dark parts in the photograph. Dodging makes the bright parts brighter, and burning makes the dark parts darker. You can dodge and burn using Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, but this destroys pixels. So it’s better to use a non-destructive technique such as in this tutorial.

Here is another way to create a high contrast image in black and white.


Lighting is always important in photography, so it goes without saying that it is also important in monochromatic photography. Dramatic light is something that helps a monochrome image a lot. The contrast between the lights and the darks in the photo happens when there is a full range of tones in the photo, and this full range is achieved when the light is ‘just right.’

To control the light that makes the photograph, pay attention to the exposure. You need to make good decisions about the exposure made by the three settings of aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Too fast of an exposure, and you risk having no details in the shadows, or dark parts. Too slow, and you may risk blowing out the highlights.

Post processing work

Most dSLRs have a Monochrome shooting mode these days. This means the black and white conversion is done in camera. This might be all right, but you will find that camera conversions into monochrome are quite bland and do not have the high contrast drama that you might appreciate in a photo. So the tendency for a shooter to underexpose the image is quite possible. (I know I tend to underexpose a LOT when shooting in monochrome mode.)

Probably a good way to make monochrome images is to shoot in color first, then convert the image to a monochrome. There are several ways to do this. One is the method done in RAW in the video by House of Photoshop, above.

Another, easier way is to use Channels to make the black and white conversion.

Here is yet another way to convert a color photo to black and white, by Joey L.


Pick a way that works for you, a way that seems more intuitive. This frees you up to make more artistic decisions about the conversion you are making.

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Drying squid in Pran Buri, Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Composition and the Use of Color

Some days, it’s better to think in black and white.

If you are learning how to use lines and shapes to create great compositions, shooting for monochrome images is a great way to hone those skills.

Black and white photography is a great way to learn composition because it concentrates on techniques that emphasize content, contrast, and most importantly, form.

Forms in the frame, like what the Photography Tribe‘s Module 3 is about, are emphasized in BW photography—those shapes and lines that combine to make the composition.

Documentary Style

Documentary style photography, of which photojournalism and street photography are part, focuses mostly on content. Photos that document events tell stories within the frame, so color may or may not be that important in the image.

Fishermen in Pran Buri copyright Aloha Lavina

Documentary photography focuses on content.

If the colors add to the image, such as in this photo of a fishing boat setting out to sea, taking a color image may be a good decision. In documentary imagery, shooting in color is as much a decision as what to include in the frame. If the color adds to the image, it is better to use color.

Colorful fishing boat, Pran Buri Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Color was a must here with the fishing boat, reflection and blue sky and water.

If I had converted this photo of drying squid against a blue sky to a monochrome image, it would not have had the better effect. The contrast between the warm colors of the drying squid and the sky makes for a pleasing combination. It also gives extra information that’s pertinent—that it’s a hot day, perfect for the business of drying squid.

Drying squid in Pran Buri, Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Color added contrast and context in this photo of drying squid in Thailand.


But sometimes, a lack of color is a better choice.

When I took the photo above of the two fishermen with their almost empty net, I realized that although it sort of works as a documentary style image, the composition itself lacked impact. The background interfered with its clutter. If my goal is to improve composition, I had to zoom in and work only on lines, shapes, and contrast to make compositions that worked better.

Shooting Form: Lines, Shapes, and Textures

Filling the frame with a set of lines and shapes is a technique used in black and white photography. Black and white photography works when the forms in the frame are the main emphasis.

In the photo below, the geometry of the basket acts as a background for the cluster of fish. The lines of the basket lead the eye to the fish. The harmony of the uniform linear shapes makes a good contrast with the more curvy lines of the fish at the nexus of the composition.

Fish in a plastic basket in Pran Buri Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Geometry in a composition without distracting color.

In this next photo, the rough texture of the net gives a good contrast between the smooth ones of the fish. The tones in the net are dark, setting off the highlights in the fish, creating a contrast that serves to push focus on the main subject, the fish.

Fish in net, Pran Buri Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Tonal contrast, lines, shape and texture without distracting color.


Shooting Form: Light

Another advantage of shooting in monochrome is that you can shoot during the times when most people consider the light ‘bad.’ I shot this image of the hanging cuttlefish at around one in the afternoon, when the light is directly overhead. But I noticed that the patterns of the wooden drying racks made some nice patterns of light and shadow on the hanging squid, and made the squid on top of the rack seem almost luminescent.

Hanging squid to dry, Pran Buri Thailand copyright Aloha Lavina

Form, shapes, contrast and light without distracting color.

The other reason why this worked better as a monochrome image was the presence of a very distinct pattern in the hanging squid, a pattern in the squid that was flat on top of the rack, and the natural frame of the drying rack itself.

Finally, the colors present in the image as it was originally shot did not add anything to the image. The sky was blue, but the squid was white and the background included a pink boat and a smattering of dark, water-stained wood. None of these colors really added to the image, so it made sense to make the final image in monochrome.

With today’s cameras where you can switch from color to monochrome easily, it might help to shoot in monochrome sometimes. It certainly helps you zoom in on content, focus on spotting contrast, and shoot for composition using forms in the frame. You can also convert easily to black and white using this method in Photoshop.


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Two women walk down an alley in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Playing with Monochrome Picture Mode

Spice up your travel photography tip # 2: Play with Monochrome Picture Mode

Sometimes, I get too serious.

I mean, walking around in a place I haven’t been, enthralled by all the new things I see, I sometimes forget that the best thing to do with my camera is play. That’s right, play: that state of experimental joy that feels good in itself because it’s relaxed and holds no pressure.

Walking around in Hoi An in the middle of the day, it is hot. The shadows are sharp, the light is harsh. The common response is, put the camera away, have a superb Vietnamese coffee, and practice portraits by people watching, take a nap in the air-conditioned hotel room until the light softens and turns a warmer color in the late afternoon.

Or, keep walking with the camera on Monochrome Picture Mode and make some monochrome images.

I decided to play with this feature of the 7D and learned some new things.

Shoot in RAW + JPG

Ducks on a motorbike, Hoi An Vietnam.

Ducks on a motorbike at the market, Hoi An Vietnam. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Most dSLRs now allow you to choose both RAW and JPG as the output files when you shoot. RAW isn’t really a picture file per se; it’s a composite of all the information the camera gets when you take a photo. So if you choose Monochrome Picture Mode and shoot in RAW, you’re still taking all the good stuff from the scene you captured even though the image shows up monochromatic in your LCD display. Shooting the extra JPG file gives you a ‘true’ monochrome image, processed in camera.

Play with Exposure Compensation

Shooting JPGs will allow you to hone your skills in shooting black and whites. The fun part of shooting black and white is getting to use and learn about exposure compensation. This is the ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ calibration line you see on the top display of the camera. Plus on a Canon means you compensate by ‘adding’ more light or overexpose, and minus on a Canon means you compensate by ‘subtracting’ light or underexposing. What do these pluses and minuses do? They actually allow you to make images darker (minus) or brighter (plus). (And you can use exposure compensation even when you shoot in color.)

Make Subjective Exposures


Two women walk down an alley in Hoi An, Vietnam.

One of my faves from Hoi An is from playtime with Monochrome Pic Mode. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Black and whites need pronounced blacks and glowing whites, so you can use exposure compensation to make what I call a subjective exposure—an image that looks like what I have in mind. This means you can underexpose or overexpose to taste, and play with the amount of light you let in the camera when you capture the image.

Playing with the Monochrome Picture Mode on your camera while traveling can help you have fun and learn something new about controlling how you make images.

Up next: Spice up your travel photography by shooting motion, right here on Imagine That!

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Develop a Creative Vision

This is the second in a series of posts about how changing the ways we see as photographers can change the stories in our photos.

Reading this article on the journey from snapshot to expressive imagery got me thinking about how to make creative vision concrete for people learning photography. I want to share some insights here and hopefully make this abstract and wonderful idea into something you can practice after reading this post.

One of the most challenging parts of being creative is to look at things from a different perspective. We may find that subjects we shoot don’t vary in a topical way. We can shoot faces for the rest of our lives, or land and water. Others of us just hunt for light, and make images from that. But a viewfinder is a viewfinder is a viewfinder. To really make a new image, we have to practice seeing in ways that make our efforts more expressive, and less of snapshots.

The best way to learn something complex such as creative vision is to break it up into discrete, bite-size skills. That way, someone can practice a skill and hone it until it becomes a part of the natural repertoire before moving on to the next.

The reflections of colors on the water, rather than the content, make this photo more interesting. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the colors

Spotting pleasing or unique colors to create an image is a great skill to have. Although it seems that luck has a big part to play in finding pleasing color palettes in our found images, it is also a matter of being a skillful observer. Ask questions like, is an explosion of color a great background for someone in silhouette? Will walking to another vantage point give the shot a better background? We don’t have control of what colors present themselves to us from day to day, but we do have control of where we stand and what we include in the frame. Training ourselves to think about color will produce images that use the color in expressive ways.

The values in this image made it a good choice for monochrome. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

See the values

The world is in Technicolor and we can’t see in monochrome. But imagining the values—the intensity of black, white and shades of gray in between— rendered by the light reflected by the color spectrum, gives us a creative way of seeing. Seeing a scene from darkest values to brightest is like putting a gray filter over your eyes. Seeing in values helps us to compose using them, instead of using shapes or positions of things. Seeing this way can help us break out of basic composition into the next level.

A few lines and a simple color palette are sometimes enough. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Seeing simplicity

Every beginning photog has heard the phrase “fill the frame.” This is great advice; when we compose, we don’t want nor need clutter. What we want is to use the shapes, color and content in a photo to speak to the person looking at it. Learning how to notice and photograph detail can help us zoom in on a story, and make our images more expressive.

Focus on a story

Stories have power.

Stories appeal to us because they are like shared reality. Something in a story, even something small, will be a thing we connect to ourselves. It could be an emotion, or a situation. It could be a metaphor for how we feel, or a sliver of a moment we remember.

"Dawn" Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

We consume stories because they are mirrors of our humanity. Inspiration comes to us in the form of survival stories; we cheer for strangers who beat the odds; we celebrate those who bravely move on after catastrophe strikes.

Some of us write. Others of us talk. Many of us take pictures.

But the stories all have something in common. They can illuminate the best of who we are, and lend us hope.


"Persistence" Copyright Aloha Lavina 2011.

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Photography Doesn’t Fix Everything

for Jodi

I reread this post, about long term travel not being able to fix everything, over at Legalnomads, and thought, that sounds familiar. Last summer I took two months to travel to Burma and then Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Travel for me is a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to Jodi the other day, I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I go away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. I need very little really, to be happy, just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of someone who climbs volcanoes or rides on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in Europe because of an ashcloud, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flashflood in the Philippines, but I was ten or eleven years old; it was an adventure full of floating refrigerators, bamboo rafts afloat above city streets, and ignorance about water born diseases. And yes, I live in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But last May, the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I do have, though, is a camera. I lug sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I build my travel day around making photos. When I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Cold and dusty in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan.

1.     Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of my face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, I can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

2.     Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, I can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

A few hours before the first snowfall, Paro, Bhutan.

3.     You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone Tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone.  If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from my photography.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

4.     You can’t just crop.

Similarly, I can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Holding down the roof with stones, Punakha, Bhutan.

5.     Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there’re lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, I shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

Hanging on a barbed wire fence, near Thimphu, Bhutan.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

When I wrote to Jodi the other day, I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.





70mm @ f/5.0, ISO 200, 1/160s

Some days you feel like the bare apple trees after harvest, waving their arms to the sky, the wind snaking around their ankles like a lover or a beggar. Solitude can be lonely or it can just be alone. It can be a memory, sepia and semi-toned, tempered with discontent, or brimming with anticipation.


Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Inside Silent Walls: A Week with Benedictine Nuns

Pope John Paul II has just died, and the Vietnamese are weeping.

Here in Phan Thiet, in the southeastern coast of Vietnam, thousands of people are flocking to Masses. The rickshaw driver who took me to the seafood and beer place last night picks me up from the Ocean Dunes Novotel Resort, where I am staying for downtime and golf, to take me to a Mass. The chapel is packed; I hover outside, not able to squeeze through the press of bodies.

I can hear from inside the priest beginning the Mass “Nien zhang Cha, va Con, va Thanh Than….” I make the sign of the cross with everyone else. After the part where the priest greets the people and the people answer back “Va o cong Cha,” I am lost; my Vietnamese only goes so far. But I stay respectfully, trying to catch here a word, there a phrase, watching the faces of the people around me. I know the names of the saints in Vietnamese, so when the priest announces the Gospel for that day, I know we are listening to John tell the story of how Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me?” three times.

Toward the end of Mass, the crowd’s emotion swells; I am guessing someone is eulogizing Pope John Paul II. Many of the worshippers here are wearing white, for mourning. Some

A nun's life: strong hands, Jesus, and simple possessions. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

men even have the traditional white headscarf for funerals, made of rough cotton, tied around their heads. Vietnamese Catholics are seriously committed to their religion. I watch a man pound his chest with his fist, his mouth making long, sorrowful notes.

The crying and grief take me back to my grandmother’s deathbed, four months earlier. In the icy private ICU room, a withered woman lay, her hair thin, tubes giving her oxygen, a soft blip on a screen telling of her heart. She had been the anchor of my childhood. Beside her bed as she lay dying, I read aloud from Moby Dick, my voice faltering over lines she had read to me long ago, when I was the child and she was the reader. Before she passed on, she woke up briefly and recognized me. She beckoned me weakly, and I bent my head down to her lips and heard, “Find God.”

I could not cry when she died. I went back to work, to the smallness of days spent poring over negative contact sheets of bright umbrellas and golden pagodas. After hours of work, I worked again, this time on a golf swing, pounding ball after ball at a driving range near my house in Bangkok, until I was tired. Until my body craved sleep.

I awake from denial in Phan Thiet, in the heat of Vietnamese summer. The Pope is dead, and so is my grandmother. And it is time to look at grief and know its face.

The face that meets me as my taxi stops at Jamberoo Abbey is kind and fresh in the way that religious —nuns and priests—faces are: a freshness shaped by a life of simplicity. Sister Therese knows just when I arrive. I have taken the train from Sydney Central Station to Jamberoo, and a taxi from the pub near the train station. Driving in the cab through the hills of Jamberoo, it is so lush and green that I can see why in 1834 Governor Richard Bourke nicknamed the region the “Garden of New South Wales.” Sheep grazing dot the fields beside the winding Jamberoo Mountain Road flanked by ferns and eucalyptus trees leading to the Benedictine Abbey, an enclosed community in a wooded area.

Sr. Therese leads me into the front office, asks me to sit. The cloistered Benedictines lead a life of prayer, so Sr. Therese goes straight to the point. “Why have you come to us?”

A million things swarm into my head, but I reply, “I have a question, and I need to listen to an answer.” In my research, I learned of the Benedictine Abbey’s openness to host people from time to time, people who need to contemplate, whether through the guidance of a sister or alone, on their own. The Abbey has four timber cottages and two hermitages open to those who seek some peace away from the world for a while.

The day I flew in from Vietnam to Sydney, I called to ask for a week’s stay at one of the cottages. Sister called me yesterday, telling me to arrive at noon, the hour when the sisters can speak; the rest of the day they spend in their vow of silence.

Sr. Therese smiles at me. “You have come to the right place. That is what we do here. We listen to God.” She opens a drawer and takes out a medallion on a leather string, hands it to me, saying, “You can wear this to indicate that you want to avoid speaking for the time you are here. We have two other people who have come for personal retreats as well. If they are wearing the medallion, please do not speak to them.”

I nod understanding. She leads me from the office to Cottage 4, the one farthest from the library and the communal kitchen. The cottage is simple, with a sitting area, a dining table and kitchenette on the first floor and two sleeping cells and a toilet-bath combination on the second floor. My cell is six feet by four feet, with a desk and chair, a narrow closet, and a cot. Wide windows face the Jamberoo Mountains, misting with cloud cover in the Australian autumn.

“You can use any of the food that is in the common fridge outside Cottage 1,” Sr. Therese explains.

I nod and thank her, then ask, “Is there a timetable the sisters follow?”

Sr. Therese smiles, “Yes, we pray seven times a day. A bell will be rung to signal those times.”  She turns to leave my cell, then turns back and adds, “I have to go back to my silence in a few minutes, but if you have any emergency, please come to the main office and a sister will help you.”

I thank her one last time, and begin my silence.

I unpack the small sling bag I have brought. A change of clothing, a pair of pajamas, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a notebook, a camera, and two pens. I put these away in the closet and walk downstairs to the small kitchen area. There is an electric stove and a toaster. In the cupboards there are a soup pot, frying pan, cooking oil, salt, pepper, teacups, plates and saucers. A peeling knife, spoons and forks, no chopsticks, bags of tea and sachets of coffee, and stacks and stacks of Maggi chicken noodle soup packets. Noodle bowls.

A path winds outside the cottages. I follow the path, passing each cottage toward Cottage 1. Each cottage has a porch facing a field. Somewhere a cow lows.

A nun holds a rosary with the crucifix chosen by Pope John Paul II as his personal crucifix. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Outside Cottage 1 is the communal fridge Sr. Therese mentioned. Inside the industrial size fridge are oranges, cheese, butter, jam, eggs, gallon jugs of milk and orange juice. On a cupboard beside it are loaves of bread.

Facing Cottage 1 a few paces away is the Library. It is empty when I enter, my footsteps sounding hollow on the timber floor. The library consists of several shelves of books important to Australian religious history, Catholic literature, and some reference titles. A couple of couches and an armchair invite readers below the shelves. Across the square room from the books is a bigger kitchen with sink, counter, stove and microwave. There is a fridge here too, and when I open it, there are packets of microwaveable food. These have been labeled “Christopher” with permanent marker on masking tape strips. I close the fridge.

On the back porch of the Library building is a bench facing the field. A pair of cows graze, and smack in the middle of the field is a lonely timber cottage, much smaller than the others. A low fence separates the cottage from the rest of the buildings, but the gate, though unlatched, is closed. I check my curiosity and lope off toward the rest of the grounds.

It’s 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and my toes know it. Foolishly, I have brought only the long sleeved cotton shirts I had brought to Vietnam and a pair of open sandals. At least I have long trousers on. I rub my hands while following the stone path around the cottages until I come to a rose garden. Here and there are rows of roses, Tea Roses with their unruly bushes, Hybrid Perpetuals, Hybrid Tea Roses and the Floribunda with multiple flowers on each stem. In the chill of autumn, Australian roses insist on blooming.

I walk slower through the garden, following a stone path to a corridor under an awning. A sign indicates this is the way to Chapel. I follow the corridor to a large wooden door with an old fashioned metal knocker. The simple plaque on the door says Chapel. I do not knock, but I push the door ajar and peek inside.

The chapel is circular in the main area with several pews, an organ, a lectern with a heavy leather-bound book on it. A small wing near the entrance flanking the altar area also has several pews. Here a couple of people wearing normal clothes and medallions smile at me as I enter.

The altar fronts wall-to-wall and ceiling-high glass windows, revealing the wild growth of the forest and the mountains in the distance. The altar is a slab of polished wood on thick legs. A simple crucifix carved from reddish wood watches from a place over the altar.

I genuflect and bow my head, then take a seat in a pew. From here I see a door on the opposite side of the entrance. It is this door through which the sisters come into Chapel, a few minutes later, for midday prayer.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “The gift of prayer is inseparable from another grace: that of humility, which makes us realize that the very depths of our being and life are meaningful and real insofar as they are oriented toward God as their source and their end.”

It is perhaps this humility I witness that makes the Abbey seem irresistible. I find the prayer time so gentle, its waves of song and liturgy like an ocean smoothing the jagged rocky edges of life. The nuns’ faces seem to me to glow in the chapel’s window light. They had no position to defend, no feelings of loss of face to avenge, no prejudice, no judgment, no malice. They are beautiful.

I go back to Chapel every time for scheduled prayer that day—5.00 pm and 7.00 pm. The next morning, I wake at 4.00, dressing quickly in the chilly air, walking briskly to Chapel, to make it for the 4.30 am Vigils prayer. The Chapel floor is cold when we kneel. In the faint light the voice of the sister reading the liturgy seems to echo.

A nun kneels in prayer. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

Breakfast is an orange, coffee and a bowl of Maggi chicken noodle. After Vigils, I wash by hand the clothes I had used yesterday, so I can use them tomorrow. When I go to Cottage 1 to make a meal, in the dim bluish light of early morning, I spy the bearded monk from the lonely cottage in the field, tiptoeing in shorts and tee shirt to the communal fridge. He leaves minutes later with a jug of milk, half-jogging back to his cottage.

I spend the morning raking leaves around the cottages. I find the rake in a tool shed beyond the Library, and a wheelbarrow to cart the leaves to a pile near the shed, a pile that looks like it is a compost heap in progress. All morning I go back and forth between raking and piling leaves, the repetitive motion comforting. I break for the 8.00 am midmorning prayer and Mass, then go back to work until lunch: another bowl of Maggi, an orange. Prayer at 1.00 pm. Back to raking the leaves. Prayer at 5 pm. Then it is too dark to rake, and not that many leaves have fallen while we were in prayer. I make a dinner of the usual, wash and put away the dishes, and go to the library to try to read.

My days become a pattern. Wake at 4, wash clothes, attend Vigil at 4.30, breakfast. Then work—raking, candle making, scrubbing cottage kitchens and floors—anything that needed doing, I do. The hours pass, marked by the times in Chapel.

The silence has claimed me. I find it thick, like a protective blanket wrapping me in its safety.

On the fourth night, I sit up in the cot fully awake. It is just past midnight, but it feels like 4.00 am. I half expect the bell to ring, to signal Vigil.

I make my way to the Library building. Familiar by now with the path, my movement triggers the motion sensor lamps lining the path, and spots of light lead me to the porch bench by the Library. I make a cup of tea and pick a book, reading portions of it, but I can’t concentrate. I put down the book and listen to the sounds masked by the dark. Maybe a bird native to Australia with an unfamiliar call. Maybe the cows in the field shifting in their sleep.

Above me the stars for which Australia was named wink in the thousands. Below my feet the timber creaks slightly. Inside me a memory finally breaks free and streams down my cheeks.

My grandmother stands in her yard, that patch of dirt behind her house, sloped and irregular, where she grows tropical plants. Her hand dips into a bowl of steamed rice, and then flings the rice grains out, so they fly like wedding wishes into the air before landing in scattered patterns on the ground.

Birds come, house swallows. They swarm, chirping, around her feet. They do not fight over the grains. There is enough for everyone.

She feeds them the extra rice from her own evening meal. She talks to them. I cannot hear her words in the memory, but I remember her voice, and I stay still, and listen.

Walking home after night prayer. Photo by Aloha Lavina.