Death and Life

In the coming month our family’s emotions will run the gamut from deep loss to profound joy.

College senior
College senior

My mom is getting ever nearer to the end of her life. It’s been just over a month since I saw her, and there have apparently been profound changes since then. Her pain is increasing, as is her dementia. She still has an appetite, but is losing weight. We were informed last week by hospice that Mom is most likely entering her last few weeks of life, but no one can say for sure how much longer she will be with us. She is still her positive and upbeat self and gets up and dressed every day, but it’s getting harder each time. She frequently talks of her parents now, either that they’re coming soon, or that they’ve been taking care of things for her, bringing her things. This is not uncommon with the dying, to sense the presence of and talk to already dead relatives and friends.

My father’s death was sudden but not unexpected, and even though he and I were not close it was still a shock. My mother’s death is expected, but I already know it will affect me far more profoundly than my father’s did. My mom and I have had our differences, but she has lived a long time, had a good life, and lived it her way. She has been a genuine force of nature, a comet racing across the sky, and the world will be emptier without her in it.

Great joy will also be coming in October though as our new granddaughter is due to arrive this month! My son and daughter-in-law are ready, with the baby crib set up and other baby gear cleaned and ready to be put into use again. Our grandson is also excited and eager to meet “his baby.” Our son will be taking several weeks off from work to take care of things around the house, and get our grandson to school and home while our daughter-in-law recovers and adjusts to life with two children.

This time we don’t know the name they have chosen for the baby, and we’re looking forward to learning what they’ve decided on. We’ve tried to guess but have given up; we can’t figure out a name that works in both Japanese and English. I wish we could meet our granddaughter sooner than next year, but hopefully March will be here before we know it. Brett and I are looking forward to being those grandparents again when we go to Japan, with suitcases bursting full of baby things, and goodies for our grandson as well. We’re so excited about getting to spend loads of time with both our grandchildren.

Both death and great sadness, birth and great joy will enter our lives this month. It’s a bit overwhelming to contemplate at times, but that’s just how life happens sometimes.


How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram,
Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram,

Myth: it costs a lot to travel.

Yes it does if you stay in $400 a night hotels like I used to do.

It was fun.

The truth is I love to travel solo.

I don’t have to wait for a friend to break up with her lover, leave their job, or save enough money to go with me.

When I want to go to Nepal, Colombia, or Sardinia I put on my Van sneakers and go!

I can sit in a fancy pants bar/restaurant like I am now and write. And enjoy a superb glass of red wine and be at ease and comfortable.

You never have to negotiate where to go based on money.

I was backpacking in the Himalayas solo in 2009 in Sikkim, India and realized I was spending less money per month than I received for renting out my apartment in Palo Alto, California.

I was spending less than $300 per month to stay in guesthouses eating home made Tibetan soup and momos, traveling by share jeep in the Himalayas, and having a blast.

I came home from that 10-month trip with money in the bank.


Don’t go over your budget on lodging. Yes you can splash out for a few days. But you can also get budget accommodation and live it up at the upper crust lounge/restaurant like I am now.

Secret: you can often work/write in 5-star surroundings enjoying the incredible views and then go back to your Airbnb room, campsite, or rented home.

You’ll discover that having a set amount to spend on lodging will keep you kosher.

I often times suggest a lower price on a room when the price suggested is too high.

It’s called rich foreigner tax. Many countries, like India, have no set prices on their rooms, the price is whatever they can get.

So haggle wisely, you’re still most likely paying too much.


One of the best things I ever did was travel twice around the world with no itinerary buying one-way plane tickets along the way.

If I felt like staying in Bali another month I could, no discussion.

If I wanted to explore Burma for a month, I went.

First time I went round the world I spent $2900 on plane tickets, the 2nd time I spent $1800. No I didn’t buy a RTW ticket, it doesn’t give you freedom on your journey.

For example I decided to stay in Cambodia for 4 weeks when I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving.

I was falling in love with Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located and so I stayed.

No heated arguments. I found an incredible local guesthouse: Rosie’s guesthouse. And another one, Ou Malay where the Cambodian owners and I had a love fest of laughing and daily camaraderie.

It was $7 a night, no wifi but so what?! We loved each other!

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse Siem Reap,
Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap,

You meet so many people!

When you’re solo, there’s no one to listen or talk to. You can be alone with your own thoughts and then Bam! you meet someone seriously interesting who lights up your world and you wonder how you ever would have met them if you were with someone.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. And I’m still in touch with many friends I met traveling from Spain, Korea, Australia, Nepal, India, Germany, and Argentina.

They shook up my world and invited me into a new portal of love and friendship. I never would have met them if I wasn’t solo.

Being solo you have to reach out. It can be intoxicating.

Traveling solo, I mention my thoughts to whoever is standing by, I don’t take offense if they don’t respond, I’m simply radiating aloha which means, I’m spreading good will and happiness which is what the Dalai Lama advises but I didn’t realize until living in Hawaii that this means Aloha.

Pay attention. You might meet your soulmate, best friend ever, or meditation master around the next corner.

Suddenly you’ll be in a new world that you had no idea even existed.

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon,
Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon,


Yes you can be safe but you have to trust your gut. Don’t negotiate with the red alert warnings your instincts tell you. Pay attention.

Your body knows before your mind. Listen.

And while you are at it: don’t tell people you’re traveling solo. Don’t advertise your solo status by flagrantly drinking and carousing. Really.

Do make friends with families and women. Volunteer with humanitarian foundations that are educating and changing lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and smile.

A smile is universal. Yes it works in every country. Try it. It works.

Change Your Life, join Mary on Kauai July to December for a 3-day luxury private retreat, learn yoga and photography on the best island in the world.


Why I Love People Photography


The truth is, if you go back to your childhood days you’ll discover what you loved.

I was given my first camera at age 7 by my grandfather from Poland. It was a plastic Diana brand camera and I was smitten. I immediately started taking secret shots of my family. They frequently wouldn’t know I was photographing them.

I felt powerful catching them so candidly, their faces remarkably real.

And it was ultra fun! And to magically get the photographs returned in prints holding each one in my hot little hands to see and study was a miracle.

And now 5 decades later I’m still at it.

I started shooting professionally in 1981 in Palo Alto, California. It was a heady time to be in the center of Silicon Valley.

Apple Computer was exploding, Facebook was not even an idea, and Google was just getting financed by my next door neighbor.

Steve Job’s girlfriend lived across the street. He’d pick her up in a convertible and one time I got a picture of them kissing with my telephoto lens. One day I’ll publish it. He later married her.

When I think of Steve Jobs I see him kissing his future wife, not selling computers. 🙂

So yesterday I shot a family portrait at the ocean here on Kauai and it was so much fun that they had to remind me about getting paid.

I’m so grateful to do what I love. And this is after 29 years of being paid to take photographs. I’m still jazzed about it.

All 13 people yesterday were at ease with me immediately and ready to try my ideas and express their ideas too.

The thing is when I’m asked to take a milestone photograph of a family, I absolutely know that this is a historically magic moment in their lives. We won’t pass this way again, not quite like this. It’s bordering on the mystical as it makes me see how temporary our lives are.


It took me many years to learn how to photograph a child. I’ll save you the learning curve, here is the secret.

You wait until they relax into the moment and then you pounce and capture it fast. That’s how I got the first photograph of the girl in the tree above. I waited. 

I’m not all that patient but photographing people educates me on how to be patient. Perfect timing has to do with waiting and pouncing. You have to be fast to get that magical second when she won’t look that way again, this is her moment in the tree, and she’s happy.

No one told her to smile or pretend to be happy to get some ice cream, this was real.

You might only have one chance so you have to go for the gusto at the same time you’re waiting patiently.

It takes practice.

I remember the moment I realized that my finger snapped the photograph before my brain suggested it.

I was photographing a wedding at Stanford University and I was waiting for that perfect photo of the bride being walked down the aisle by her father.

I discovered that the magic moment is quite often before they take the first step down the aisle not while they are walking.

Dad and daughter looked at each other for a fleeting second. Boom, I got it.

They didn’t even know I took the photo they were so caught up in the moment before Dad would give her away. Love poured out of them and I was crying too. But crying doesn’t keep me from getting the shot, it only adds to it.

So my family wanted a fun ocean shot before going back to the mainland. I loved that the grown-ups were even more excited than the kids about it.


See more family photography here.

One thing I’m grateful for is the amazing people I’ve met from doing photography all these decades.

I’m still friends with many of the people I’ve photographed. Most of the 722 weddings I shot in Palo Alto, those couples are incredibly still together.

Shooting weddings renewed my faith in humanity. True love does happen.

And if you’re ever unsure of what you love to do, go back to your early days of childhood and remember what put a smile on your face.

Mary Bartnikowski, award-winning photographer, and author for 29 years has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University and worldwide. She daily has her toes in sand, swims in the ocean, and laughs often. Join Mary for a private luxury retreat to learn photography and yoga on Kauai, details here.

37 Years


Brett and I watched “Meet The Patels” a few weeks ago, a semi-documentary about 30 year-old Ravi Patel’s search for a bride. The entire movie was great, but our favorite moment was when Ravi’s parents each commented separately, “She/He still believes that after 37 years, she/he can change me.” Brett and I both laughed out loud because that’s us too. We still secretly think we change each other.

Except neither of us really wants the other to change. We love and like each other just the way we are.

I don’t know any secret to why our marriage is still going strong. No one can drive me crazy as quickly as Brett can, and the same for him: I can make him absolutely bonkers in no time flat. We’re very, very different people: I’m an introvert, he’s an extrovert. He likes to save things; I like to throw things away. He likes physical activity, while I prefer to curl up with a book. He’s a horizontal thinker – one thing at a time – while I think vertically, and can balance many things at once (he says I talk in spreadsheets). Although he’s very mechanically inclined, he’s right-brain oriented while I very much favor the left side of my brain, and have no mechanical skills whatsoever. We like different types of movies, books, and so forth.

In other words, opposites did attract in our case. In Chinese astrology, he’s a Tiger, and I’m a Dragon, and are one of the worst astrological matches out there. Or . . . one of the best: the Immovable Object meets the Irresistible Force, who completely balance each other.

We agree on the big things though, like money, childrearing, politics and so forth. And, we mostly agree on the little things too, which is maybe more important. After nearly 40 years together, we can still surprise each other. Even though we have fairly separate interests, we greatly enjoy each other’s company, and can talk with each other about anything. We’ve always been and still are each other’s best friend. We make each other laugh. We not only appreciate the other’s strengths, but we appreciate and understand the other’s weaknesses as well, and are quick to help out or step in if needed.

We have never gone to bed angry with the other. If there’s disagreement, we stay up and work it out. We express our love and affection frequently. Both of us grew up in homes with unhappy marriages, but we thankfully haven’t repeated our parents’ mistakes.

Before I met Brett, my mother advised me not to marry a sailor, that I would always regret it. Brett’s mom stayed convinced that I was nothing more than a gold digger, and only married him for his money (hahahahahahahaha). Thankfully both were wrong because we’ve been very right for each other.

Happy 37th anniversary to us!



#Kauai: Power Places

Anini Beach, Kauai, photo,

Suddenly I was on Kauai. My toes tingled and my skin sparkled. 

My mouth dropped open in wonder and awe.

The power of this island surged up from the floor of my soul and out the top of my head. Happy I listened to that urge inside me to leave Hawaii Island and discover Kauai.

I’d been looking for this enchanted place in 32 countries and I never found it until now.

I knew I was home. 

I didn’t think I’d live in the USA again after traveling for 8 years worldwide. But when I found myself lying in the road after a brutal motorbike accident in Thailand, my heart whispered Hawaii.

So with 3 pieces of luggage I came home to the USA and landed in Honolulu, Hawaii not knowing a soul. I’ve never been more thrilled to see the Welcome to the United States of America sign in international arrivals. But this one had hula dancers on it.

Kauai happens to you. And your life is never the same. In the 18 months I’ve lived on this island I continue to discover new secrets that sing to my spirit, and when I visit a powerful place I love I am re-ignited with passion and purpose for my home.

Yesterday I went to Anini Beach in the above photo, and when I got there my heart busted open with gratitude. This is why I live here! Turquoise as far as the eye can see.

You’re dunked in killer beauty and pristine air. Swimming in diamond clear water that wild turtles love to be in!

This place heals you. My toothache disappeared. 

So I’m having dental surgery tomorrow. And I know in the depth of my being, at the core of my spirit that it kicked me into a greatly improved mindset to commune with turtles on Anini Beach.

Maybe I’ll go there right now to get another infusion of fairy dust, see my sea turtle friends, and soar to heaven and back without getting on a plane.

Speaking of that, I went on a helicopter ride and saw all my power places from the sky and it blew my brain cells out of my mind.

Flying Over Kalapaki Bay, Kauai, photo,

I was speechless and that is not an every day thing for me. You feel the radiance of cascading waterfalls, lush emerald green cliffs, and a beckoning bewilderingly blue coastline that delivers instant transformation and peace as you fly over this sacred rock in the middle of the ocean. You feel blessed.

It made me see that you can fly without your body, you just have to steep yourself in a powerful place that calls to you.

Surrender to what you loved as a child. Go see that place on the other side of the world that floats up in your heart when you’re dreaming. You’ll never be the same again. 

Next Post: the video of flying over Kauai in a helicopter.

Mary Bartnikowski, author of 4 books, award-winning photographer, and educator. She has led programs worldwide and at Apple, Stanford University, and Intel.

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