Category Archives: Change

You’re not an egg. You’re not spaghetti sauce. You are a rock.

You don’t need to change, but you are probably going to in many ways. It’s inevitable. If there is one undeniable thing about living on planet earth, it is that everything changes. People grow up. They learn and move. Sidewalks crack. Weeds infringe on gardens. Glaciers flow and recede.

Given that, I’ve been thinking about the changes we go through and wondering if there something inside of us that is unchangeable, impermeable even. Is there something at the core of our being that defines us? Under all the learning and experiences that we use to define who we should be, is there a person we truly are and have always been?

This all came to me as I was watching a particularly talented science teacher’s lesson on observation which reminded me of a lesson I taught. Bear with me, I’m taking a jarring detour to Freshman Physical Science to explore this.

Back in the day, I taught an introduction to chemistry and physics to ninth graders. I taught in the small school at the foothills of the Cascades. Most of the kids were naturalists, though they were unaware of this. Growing up in that environment, they noticed things about the world that most people miss. They were the kind of kids who figured out the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies through wondering eyes long before they ever saw a diagram of the process. They might not have known the scientific terms for what they were experiencing but they knew the patterns, systems, and processes in nature. They knew magic was happening.

One of the topics we explored was the difference between physical and chemical change. In case you’ve been out of ninth grade for 41 years like me, I will recap. Physical changes are changes in the appearance or form of a substance but not the chemical makeup of the substance itself. For example, melting an ice cube or boiling water changes the form of water but the substance is still water. Likewise, chopping wood, shredding paper, or crushing a can results in a change in form not substance. Chemical changes are changes in the chemical structure of the substance. While chopping wood or shredding paper only result in smaller piece of wood and paper, burning them changes their substance. Baking a cake causes a chemical change in the ingredients. You might be able to tape a shredded page back together (or at least the guys on CSI can), but you are never getting the egg back in its original form.

In the lab, my student scientists would mix different substances and observe the changes. An Alka Seltzer tab dropped in water bubbled as it disintegrated. Sugar stirred into water seemingly disappeared. Salt became camouflaged when mixed with sand. I would ask them to identify the changes they observed and give supporting evidence for their assertions. As they dropped a rock in a beaker of water, I asked if the rock had changed. It was clearly still a rock, albeit wet. Drying it off, however, would return it to its original state. Had it changed? Only temporarily and not substantively. One of my naturalists would point out that the rock was smooth because of the flowing river it was likely submerged in. They would soon realize the rock was simply smaller as a result. It hadn’t actually changed into a different substance. I would ask, what about heat? Rocks can become hot, but the sun does not change a rock. It will cool off as soon as the sun goes away. It doesn’t even hold onto the heat the way that spaghetti sauce does long after the stove it turned off.

An egg on the other hand is never going back to its original form once you have heated it up. You can’t cool it off or reshape it. It is changed chemically. We might still call it an egg—hard boiled, over easy, fried, scrambled—but it is not the same thing we started with.

That happens to people too. We get scrambled by circumstances that make us question our beliefs. Other times we are whipped up by our friends to stand tall like peaks of meringue against the heat of the oven. We feel like we are underwater unable to find purchase one moment and then bask in the sun on solid ground the next. We get lit up and lifted up. We lose ourselves among the grains of sand. All of these things change us in some way. But are we eggs or are we rocks? Is fried-egg-change the default or wet-rock-change.

I believe we are rocks. I believe there is a core to us that is solid and defined. I believe we are all born inherently good, beautiful, perfect, and valuable. Things happen to us. Whether it is an earthquake that sharpens our edges or a river that smooths them out, we are still that rock. We are still that good, beautiful, perfect, valuable being.

I have sometimes felt that circumstances have changed me, even marred me indelibly, but that is not really true. I know that because things are always changing. I may be hardened at one point or tenderized at another, but I return to the center of who I am—my inner rock.

We are hard on ourselves, though. We want to change and be better people, but the truth is we are already. Your rock might have heated up, but it didn’t turn into something else. And unlike spaghetti sauce, it will cool off quickly. Your rock might be buried right now beneath the dirt. If you dig, you will find it. You are not your circumstances or your fleeting response to them. At your core, you are still that rock. Do what you need to do to unearth the rock that you are!

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

One word can change your world.

I was a big baby the last week of August. I didn’t realize it until Tuesday morning when I was putting on my gear to go for a ride at 4:45 AM.  After a week of riding in the high 40’s in tights and long sleeves (Did I mention it was AUGUST?!), I declared it too cold to ride outside. I switched to rowing, promptly overdid it, and was out of commission over Labor Day weekend.

We can make ourselves miserable,
or we can make ourselves strong.
The amount of effort is the same.
~Pema Chödrön~

Desperate for a workout and unable to row, I dug out my winter turtleneck, heavy tights, thick headband, and fingered gloves, and I headed out on the road. By the time I got to my riding partner’s house, I had a big smile on my face. It felt great to be outside in the stillness of the morning. Fresh, cold air washed over my cheeks and filled my lungs. Muscles pumping. Eyes watering. Sheer joy. My first thought was Why didn’t we ride last week? It couldn’t have been the temperature because it was even colder that morning. Even though the temperature dropped, I was not cold. Save for my cheeks and lips, I was toasty in my winter gear.

Then I thought, why didn’t I just put my turtleneck on last week and ride? The answer slapped me in the forehead. Because it was August! My idea of August is hot weather and tank tops—even at the crack of dawn. August is a death grip on summer. It is the countdown to putting the hard top on and digging out my boots and jeans. Rather than accept the unseasonably cold temperatures, I bemoaned them and gave up. Riding clears my head and heals my body, so I was not at my best that last week of August.

A simple word changed everything: September. September is fall, of which I am a huge fan. September is leaves changing, and sunny, cold mornings. September is invigorating. September is the start of school (also a big fan of that). What was disappointing in August was energizing in September. September is the harbinger of the autumnal equinox and the count down to the winter solstice. I want to grab every second on the road before it is too dark to ride even with my high beams. I want to spin those wheels every mile I can before the miles are covered in ice. September fills me with ambition. Anything is possible in September.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
~John Steinbeck~

Except for the day that thunder and lightning hit as I was getting ready, I rode every day last week. My days started with clearing out my head and muscles. I was daily reminded that my perspective and my attitude can be changed in just a day by just one word. When I am in that place of disappointment, I must remember that it is all in how I think about the world. Bemoaning things that are, though I wish they weren’t, is pointless and only punishes me. With a single word, I can change my perception and attitude and, in so doing, change my whole experience. I can go from just to yet. I can go from never to soon. I can see the world as dwindling or blossoming. I can view the world from loss or hope. If I can choose one word, it will be hope.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

We adapt…. but should we?

When I was in high school, we lived in a house my dad built. He was not a contractor, or a plumber, or an electrician. He was a creative guy with an indomitable spirit and a bookshelf full of advice. He had a grand scheme for wiring the house for maximum efficiency. Midway down the stairs to the garage, there was a box with at least four switches intended to control the entry way, upstairs, and downstairs lights. Most worked. I could never find the switch to the garage stairs. Eventually, I tired of light switch roulette. I would open the door, stand on the top stair, and wait for my eyes to adapt to the darkness. Of course, I could not see in the dark fully, but I was able to see well enough to navigate the stairs, avoiding the discarded boxes of textbooks, and locate the second switch inside the garage. While the darkness was not welcomed, once I adjusted to it, the return of light was a shock. I suppose we could have fixed the switch. I adapted.

The wise adapt themselves to circumstances,
as water molds itself to the pitcher.
– Chinese Proverb

It’s quite extraordinary if you think about what the human body can adapt to. The Chukchi and Inuit peoples can endure arctic temperatures below -50 F. The Tibetan and Andean peoples can breathe—even exert themselves—at altitudes more than 13,000 ft. The Sea Nomads of Thailand can dive 100 ft or more unassisted for minutes (Illardo & Nielson, 2018). Our ability to adapt comes in handy when you are forced to survive extreme conditions.

More profound is the ability of the human spirit to adapt to survive.  In the last two years, we have all, adults and children alike, had to adapt. We’ve found new ways to do things to ensure our survival. That may sound melodramatic, but it’s true. We have embraced video calls when we cannot be with loved ones or colleagues. We figured out how to teach and learn when the only thing connecting us was waves of electromagnetic energy. We’ve worn masks for hours on end just for the joy of being six feet away from another live being. We’ve replaced the bear hug with knuckle knocks and elbow taps. We have also become patently aware of the importance of our social emotional wellbeing.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.
The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
– George Bernard Shaw

I think we have always known about it on some level even if we haven’t read the research. Imagine signing onto a Zoom meeting and being greeted by name, perhaps even being asked how you are doing. That small act is a powerful message that you belong. You matter. That feeling cascades and you share that sense of belonging with others. Perhaps you know someone who melted down from the isolation of the pandemic. You may have empathized with their despair and helped them to regain perspective. Your social awareness may have been the life raft they needed. Maybe you were melting down yourself and, recognized your increasing stress was physically and emotionally debilitating, you turned on your self-management skills and committed to working out every day before work. You might have had to flex your relationships muscle as you found yourself trying to work from home with the added stress of a partner and children.

In this unpredictable situation, we will have to continue to adapt to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. There are things that could easily fade away if we do not appreciate their impact and focus our effort on maintaining them. For example, it would be easy to slip back into efficient routines and forego the effort it takes to maintain social emotional wellbeing. So, I say, let’s adapt to that. Let’s adapt to communicating a sense of belonging in our classrooms, communities, and homes. Let’s adapt to empathy and seeking to understand each other. Let’s adapt to acknowledging that our reactions reflect our own story and experiences, taking a breath, and listening with compassion. Let’s communicate our needs and boundaries in a healthy way and respect the needs and boundaries of others. Let’s adapt to all of that as if our very survival depends on it. Instead of walking down the stairs in the dark, day after day, let’s fix the light switch.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Ilardo, M., & Nielsen, R. (2018). Human adaptation to extreme environmental conditions. Current opinion in genetics & development53, 77–82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gde.2018.07.003

282 Miles – Zero Distance

Rocco worn out from fetch.

I spent the last weekend with my daughter. She called it the Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend. (We need to work on a catchier title. That’s never going to fit on a bumper sticker). The Adventure Days and Mother-Daughter Dinner Dates of her childhood have evolved into weekends at her home in her college town. On the way over, I always stop in Ellensburg (mile 120). The Chevron and Starbucks are just off the freeway and only a couple blocks apart, so I can top off the Jeep, and me, in less than 15 minutes. When I drop down to the Columbia (mile 150), I am just over half-way. Though I am still 11 miles out when I hit the first exit into town, in my mind, I am there. All told, it’s 282 miles—the perfect distance.

There ain’t no mountain high enough
Ain’t no valley low enough
Ain’t no river wide enough
To keep me from getting to you.
Marvin Gaye

I know there are moms and dads who are thinking 282 miles?!?! and perhaps that’s 280 miles too far or possibly that’s 2000 miles too close. For us though, it’s exactly right. There is a sweet spot when a young adult goes off to college. On the one hand, the first years of college are stressful. As a student, you should be close enough to be able to get home when you really need to. On the other hand, college is stressful. You should be far enough away that you can’t run home when you only think you need to. Likewise, as a parent, you should be close enough that you can visit them when they need you. You should be far enough away that you can’t just pop over anytime you think they need you. That distance might be 10 miles or it might be 1000 miles. Trust me, you need to know how far.

You never know how strong you are
until being strong is the only choice you have.
Bob Marley

I found an old spur to inspire me at Boulevard Mercantile.

For us, the sweet spot is 282 miles away. It is not that we don’t want to be closer to her. I would love for her to live around the corner from us. If she lived closer, however, she might not have had to struggle through her first year of college in a way that helped her emerge the happy and capable adult she is today. If not for a mountain high and a river wide, in the words of Marvin Gaye, I would have hopped in my Jeep before the first late-night phone call had ended and had her packed up by dawn. Who doesn’t want to save their child from the inevitable pain that accompanies becoming an adult? The truth is, there is no saving. The only path is through. While encouragement and support are helpful, in the end, we all have to get through it on our own. Learning to be with the most uncomfortable feelings – fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and sadness  – and move forward despite them is a critical step toward adulthood.

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over,
it became a butterfly.
Chuang Tzu

The Ultimate Mother-Daughter, Foodie, Coffee Shop Writing, Shopping, Rodeo Weekend was glorious.  It was as if all the memories of all of our Adventure Days were photoshopped together in saturated colors and polarized.  We laughed and talked for hours. She took me to all of her favorite places and some new places she thought I would love. I reveled at her confidence and wisdom in managing a full load of classes, a strength and conditioning coaching job, a home, a relationship, and a rambunctious dog. She’s found her path through and our relationship is not separated by 282 miles.

The only thing better than being with my daughter and a dusty Jeep would be my daughter and a muddy Jeep.

When I hit the interstate, though I was only 11 miles away, I was already gone. When I climbed back up from the Columbia, I was half-way home. I filled up in Ellensburg on regular gas and high-octane coffee. By the time I hit Snoqualmie Pass, though I was 67 miles away, I was home. And so was she.  

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

It’s Never About The Furniture

Some time ago, dear friends of mine retired and moved from Washington to Texas. I am terrible at goodbyes. That should be evident by the fact that this blog has been sitting half-written for nearly a year. I had intended to write it the morning after their going away party. I started to, but the words got stuck in my heart on the way to my head and so my fingertips just sat on the keyboard, wordless. I still miss them – my friends, not my words. I think that the sheer volume of transitions over the last year have sort of dislodged the blockage in my heart, though. My head is full, and my fingertips are ready.


Their going away party was a small affair of our closest friends. With more than a decade of shared celebrations and sorrows, we are very open and comfortable. So, it was not a surprise when they had a spirited marital debate on the disposition of an old desk that had, apparently, not made it onto the truck yet. I can’t recall who wanted to summarily dispose of the desk and who wanted to drag it half-way across the country. Therefore, I won’t choose sides. (However, to be completely transparent, I tend to root for my own team out of general loyalty to the sisterhood.) At any rate, the desk discussion billowed up like a cumulus cloud soaring off the Sound and hitting the Cascades. The marital debate began to look like a storm. To prevent the drops from turning into a flood, someone, possibly me, pointed out that it wasn’t about the desk. I should mention that these are two of the most loving, nurturing people I know. As a couple, they are the gold standard in relationships. They share a beautiful love that touches everyone they meet. Let’s be honest, though, moving could cause even Mother Theresa or Gandhi to consider abandoning their commitments to peace and love. Goodbyes are stressful. Transitions are nerve-racking. And it is never about the furniture.

So, what is it that would cause us to dig our heels in and risk relationships to protect our pride? It is about what we cannot face. It is about our feelings—deep, irrational, inexplicable, often contradictory, feelings. It is about what we cannot communicate because the truth is lodged in our hearts. But it is never about the furniture.


More than ever, this last year has been a seemingly endless stream of endings and beginnings. From outright changes to minor pivots, we have transitioned hundreds of times from what we have always done to what we are able to do now or what we must do now. It feels like none of that is what we want to do, though. To me, all of these changes are tiny goodbyes. Not all are bad. Some I even take in stride, avoiding suffering through the acceptance of what is and cannot be changed. Other things are like wearing someone else’s clothing. I am grateful that I have something to wear, but it doesn’t fit quite right. I feel awkward and annoyed. Wearing a mask fits in this category.


There are also small things that throw me off my game completely— my ‘desks’. They cause me inwardly (and outwardly if I know that you love me and will forgive my ridiculousness) to pitch a fit like a three-year-old. Take last night, I realized that I left my second Hydroflask at work. Yes. The second one. I now have two sitting on my desk. It is the weekend. I like to drink water from my Hydroflask when I workout. I was mentally pitching a fit (because not even someone who loves me should have to put up with that ridiculousness). The truth is, though, it’s not really about the Hydroflask. I have many, many water bottles. It’s not about the water bottle. Forgetting the water bottle is about feeling always a little off balance these days. Despite having years on the job, it is about feeling a little less competent in this new environment where I have to consider things I have never had to consider before— masks; social distancing; temperature checks; two stage clustered, stratified random sampling (don’t ask). I can handle all of that. I don’t want to have to handle all that. It is missing my team and kids, and communicating in all 3 dimensions. It is wondering how this has changed us all and what those changes mean for the future. It is not about a water bottle.

So, if you are like me, and you find yourself reacting passionately or actually pitching a fit, give yourself some grace. Ask yourself if it is really about the object or situation before you. If it is not, try to unblock your heart so that your feelings can reach your mind and mouth. Start a journal. Share your feelings with someone who loves you and will forgive any ridiculousness just because it is not ridiculous to you. Keeping those feelings bottled up and unexamined won’t make them go away. We are all in this together. It is never about the furniture.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Boxers, Banjos and Bravery

It has been my experience that Boxers are particularly sensitive dogs. Every time my husband sneezes, for example, Buttercup rushes to his aid. When my daughter is sad, Delta refuses to leave her side. The mere sight of a suitcase throws them into malaise. So, you can imagine how mortified I was when, after just a few moments of strumming my banjo, they abruptly woke from their nest on the couch, groaned deeply in unison, and promptly walked out of my office. Apparently, their sensitivity ends just past earshot of me struggling to play Earl (I named my banjo after Earl Scruggs as an offering for his intercession. It’s a longshot, I know).

If you follow me on social media, you know that my husband recently had my dad’s banjo restrung so that I could learn to play. It is a beautiful Washburn Style C tenor banjo circa 1924. Though I never saw him play, my dad toted this instrument across the country a couple of times. I have always wanted to play the banjo. I can still feel the joy welling in my chest when I imagine listening to Bluegrass live with my dad. I am captivated by practiced fingers picking in a blur across the strings. Raucous singular notes pelt my eardrums and then wrap around each other to make sense just as they hit my brain. Boots stomp at the glory of it all. Urgent hoots and yelps urge the players together.  I can feel the energy rising up from the floor taking my heart in its grip and squeezing until I cannot form words. I want to make that music. If Buttercup and Delta are any indication though, I am nowhere close.

I approached playing the banjo the way I always do when I am tackling something new. In fact, it is the way my father taught me. I bought some books. When I could not imagine what I was reading, I watched some YouTube videos. Then I resorted to the GTS method (Googled That Stuff). All to no avail.

Other than the obligatory parochial school recorder and a minor middle school foray into guitar, I have no experience playing an instrument. I cannot read music. Though I know the beautiful sounds I would like to make. I cannot seem to make them.  Everything is awkward. My fingers are slow. My mind feels slow. I look at the page and I don’t understand what it is asking me to do.  The obvious, of course, occurs to me. I need to find a teacher. Yet, I have this idea that I need to be better at this than I am right now to even start with a teacher. It’s embarrassing to be chasing-away-dogs-bad at this. It is as if I am a negative 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 and I need to be a 1 just to be able to take a class.

Intellectually I know that it is not true that I have to be better just to start classes. I was a teacher and I believe in the power of yet to combat I can’t.  The real issue is not whether I can learn to play the banjo. The real issue is whether or not I will allow myself to be embarrassingly bad on the way to learning something. It is an issue of being brave enough to be vulnerable. To accept that I cannot do this….yet.

The fear of embarrassment or failure is a powerful self-limiter.  It doesn’t just stop you when you have evidence that something might be difficult to learn. It can stop you when you simply imagine that something might be too difficult. In an effort to spare you the embarrassment, though, it robs you of the chance to learn something new. Worse, it robs you of the chance to learn something new about yourself.   It brings the chance to see where these fears come up in our lives. How they hold us back from being fully ourselves and realizing our dreams.

So, I am going to be brave. I am going to strum loud and proud. I am going to accept that I am not where I want to be, but I am on the journey to becoming. Perhaps, in those moments I will embarrass myself. Embarrassment is not terminal.  It is certainly much less painful than the sharp pain of regret.

What holds you back from becoming what you are meant to be?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Rejection = Redirection

Have your ever wanted to write a book? I think I have wanted to my whole life. Not too long ago, in fact, I came across some of the most melodramatic drivel I have ever read, in a box of artifacts from my middle school years. The main character’s hair was black as coal and flowed like silk. She sliced through the murky depths, her lithe body gripping the water…. blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what I was writing about. I was maybe 13, so I certainly did not know enough about life to be writing a fast-paced mob-story-slash-romance set in a city I had only ever seen on a map.

I had dreams, though. I even wrote poetry in high school, which should not come as a surprise since the adolescent psyche, combined with a hurricane of hormones and emotions, often seeps out in vague pictures painted incomprehensibly by SAT vocabulary words. Sadly, my dreams of being an author before I could vote were dashed when a literary expert, who was pressed into service scoring the Georgia State High School Poetry Contest in 1981, failed to see the deep expression of my wisdom and emotion when I likened love to a pearl being sanded smooth on a gelatinous bed of oyster flesh. (I think we can all see how I ended up a biology major.) So, I turned my pen to science and wrote, a lot.

Though I believe everything in the universe happens in the only way it can, there is a little piece of me that regrets taking that early criticism to heart and allowing it to curb my writing. I wish my critiquer had taken a mentoring stance and provided me with constructive feedback.  Some 40 years later, I have finished my first novel and am plotting my second. I am participating in critique groups, taking classes, seeking feedback from beta readers, and attending conferences. Most importantly, I am pitching and querying. Writing a novel was not the hardest part. It was hard, don’t get me wrong, but searching for an agent is far, far harder. The road to publishing, though having many routes, feels a bit like surgery without anesthesia. The pain is sharp, and you can hear everyone dissecting you.  It is not for the faint at heart.

Fortunately, I am older and wiser than when I penned my ode to a pearl. I believe in my novel. I have a lot to learn about the road to publishing. I am learning because I am open to the learning. In the process, I am learning more about myself.

Be in the moment.

Christine J. Noble

Lesson One: As with all worthy journeys, this one is easier once you find your family.  I have an amazing group of family and friends who share their wisdom, love, and support generously.  They are the perfect combination of truth and grace. They have such compassion for the rollercoaster of writing and publishing. It is a wild ride.  We all need people to give us a push on the hills, and to help us loosen our grip and enjoy the ride.

Confidence without arrogance.

Faith with humility.

It is a fine line.

Lesson Two: You can’t take criticism of your writing personally.  This might be the hardest thing I have had to learn. I love my book. I am very proud of my work.  Hearing criticism is painful. I am learning to balance my gut and my pride. Sometimes I don’t want to change something because I really love what I have written. There are so many beautiful words, placed just so. When it is criticized, it can be hard to know if I am clinging to it out of pride or if I honestly think it is best writing I can do. Confidence without arrogance. Faith with humility. It is a fine line.

Rejection = redirection

Beth Weg

Lesson Three: Finding the right agent is worth all the rejections you get along the way.  The first decline I received was extremely painful because it came 10 minutes after I sent it. I thought, if you read even the first line you would have loved my book! My next rejection came a few days later, and I thought, what if my writing is terrible and all my beta readers lied to me?  Then I got a decline letter that changed my whole perspective.  The agent pointed out that the process is subjective, and she encouraged me to keep submitting queries until I found an agent who would be an enthusiastic advocate of my work. I realized that, if an agent declines my query, it does not necessarily mean there is anything wrong with my book or writing. There is also nothing wrong with them. Agents are tremendously busy. They select projects that they can champion. It is a kindness if they decline when they do not feel I am a match.  Refer to #2. Agents know what they like, and they know what they can sell. Just like every reader does not like every genre or book or author, neither do agents. For every bestseller, there is an agent out there who turned that author down. It is a good thing that they did because they may not have been able to find just the right publisher for that book.

Just keep working the problem.

James Shipman

Lesson Four: Patience is not just a virtue.  Patience is required for survival. As in life, it is true in writing. There is so much outside of my control. Patience does not mean inaction. It means accepting the pace of the process and working on my next one so that I do not stagnate. I continue to grow and develop as a writer. I can trust that if I keep working the problem, I will find that perfect agent who will find me the perfect publisher. In the meantime, I can write.

What is your dream?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

As Easy as Learning to Ride a Bike

I was in 6th grade when I got my first real taste of freedom. It must have been spring because I remember tucking the right leg of my jeans into my socks before I threw my leg over the frame. With my left foot securely on the pedal, I had to push off and get in the saddle in one motion because the bike was too big for me. There were no helmets back then. Perhaps they had not been invented yet, more likely they were lagging the burgeoning use of seatbelts. I am glad though because now, when I throw my leg over the frame and take those first strokes even with my helmet, I can feel the ghosts of the wind whipping through my hair, dragging tears from the corners of my eyes, reddening my cheeks. That is bliss.

Olympic Discovery Trail

Over the years, I have chased that freedom on a series of bikes, new and used. After mountain biking the rail trails for years, I wanted to try road riding. I bought an ill-fitting Peugeot from a thrift shop in Monroe. The chain was rusty, but the frame was sound, so I took the top down and loaded it in the back of the Jeep. It never fit me quite right. The gears slipped a bit, and it tended to derail. None of that mattered. When I pounded up a hill, I felt like a beast. When I flew back down, freedom. I find that sometimes I hold onto things far too long because, even if they are clunky or difficult, I know how they work, and I know how to fix them when they don’t. As long as what I am doing is working for me, I am not likely to change. But there is this tipping point between comfortable but always difficult and uncomfortable but eventually easy. I know when I am desperately reaching over the fulcrum trying to tip the balance toward comfortable.

Tour de Blast: Mt St Helens

And so, it came to pass. I strolled past a Bianchi Eros in iconic Celeste green at the Seattle Bike Show. A thing of beauty, she fit me like a glove. Her solid frame, though heavy, eased the miles in the saddle. She had three chain rings in front and nine on the cassette which, for a woman built more for hauling in fish nets than cycling, was a godsend. I rode that bike for over 20 years. Except for a couple of human errors, she never failed me. I have so many great memories pedaling down country roads and paved trails. Endless hours talking to my best friend, testing our will and common sense. Endless miles, where the ache of my legs and pounding of my heart cleared my head of all my worries allowing my thoughts to weave their way into creative solutions. I loved that bike. I would howl, literally howl, on our annual New Year’s Day ride.

Centennial Trail

I took it into the local shop for some new handlebar tape a couple months ago. A minor operation that revealed a major defect. The owner broke the news to me gently. You need a new chain. It’s nearly worn through. Such a small thing. No problem really. I would just order a new chain and hope this one didn’t break while I was on the road. Then he broke the bad news to me, the cogs were worn down too. A new chain wouldn’t be able to hold onto the gears. I could either buy a new drive train or get a new bike. I felt like a three-year-old ready to pitch a fit right there in the shop. I love this bike. I don’t want a new bike. I want this bike. I have everything set just like I like it. The seat is at the right height. I just bought new lights for it. It has 27 gears!!! NOOOOOOO! (In my head). I told him I would think about it.

High Tide Ride

I was overwhelmed with all the thoughts of not wanting to give up what I was used to. I didn’t want to have to set a new bike up. I had things just like I like them, even though the truth was that the bike wasn’t perfect. It was heavy. The gears were slipping. The frame was banged up. Once I accepted that keeping it was going to become increasingly more difficult than letting it go, I was ready to embrace the possibility that I would find a new bike that fit me just as well as the old one.

First Ride in January

I found a Trek at a shop in Spokane. It is beautiful and light. I had to ask the mechanic how it shifted. It is different that my late 90’s Bianchi. I could feel the resistance mounting an offensive as he showed me how to shift gears. I am never going to remember that. I’m going to be going up a hill and shift in the wrong direction. I will probably fall over and break a leg. Then I remembered that, at some point, I did not know how to ride a bike at all. Then, I had a banana seat bike with training wheels. Though I probably did not want them to, someone must have taken the training wheels off. When I got my first adult bike, I had to learn to shift with a lever on the top bar and break with my hands.

Bike -n- Brew

At every point, I had to let go of what I was used to, what was comfortable even if difficult, and reach for something new and challenging. I met those challenges. I love the new bike. I figured out the shifters. I am getting used to the saddle. I am letting go of that old bike that served me well for over 20 years and embracing the new bike which will take me farther, faster.

What are you holding onto that is not serving you well now?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

The Truth – In Comparison

We got a puppy a couple of weeks ago. The stars aligned, and we welcomed Delta, a brindle boxer, into our home. We had been planning it for some time.  Buttercup missed having someone to play with since we lost her older brother, Buddy. The humans missed having a puppy to cuddle (and completely blocked out the joys of potty training). IMG_1889

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Buttercup is the sweetest pup.  And that is how I have always seen her: as a pup. But she is not a pup. She is 4 years old, which is middle aged for a Boxer.  Still, she was playful and cuddly like a puppy.  She still is.  The weirdest thing happened, though, when we brought home Delta.  As soon as we set Delta next to her on the floor, Buttercup grew into this brawny, muscled, big dog. It was like watching Bruce Banner turn into the Hulk (but without all the anger and not green). Suddenly, Buttercup looked like a dog. All the puppy just disappeared.

I realized that I had been seeing Buttercup as things were. She was still the puppy who played with our big dog. Even when we lost him, she stayed a puppy in my mind. That is until we had someone to compare her to. Enter Delta. Next to Delta, Buttercup appears full grown. The fact is that she has been full grown for a long time.

IMG_1992Buttercup acts like a mature dog. She quickly took on the role as leader of the pack schooling the little girl. Though they play constantly, Buttercup is putting on a show. She knows Delta is a little puppy with an oversized image of her own might. Just like Buddy did for her when she was a pup, Buttercup lets Delta nip and bite, but only pretends to do that herself. Buttercup knows she’s the adult.

This made me realize how we think we see something or someone so clearly, when the reality is that we see things and people through our memories and through comparisons. Maybe we can’t see something clearly until we have that comparison. Could we know what tears of joy are without experiencing tears of pain? Could we know loneliness without feeling kinship? Could we understand safety without experiencing fear? And so, it was with Buttercup. With nothing to compare her to, Buttercup remained a playful puppy in my eyes. Compared to a wiggly, twelve-pounder with twice as much skin as she needs, Buttercup became a musclebound sentinel.

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This has been a season of comparisons revealing what is true, starting with the pace of life. I used to see life as a bit of a tornado that I would get swept up in. That was until I was forced to stay home for 8 weeks straight.  I can see that there are a lot of things I chose to do, but always thought I had to do.  In fact, once I surrendered and accepted this situation, I let go of so many busy things I did.  I can’t even remember what they all were. They must have required a lot of gasoline, though.  I also remembered what meaningful feels like. I knew meaningful before this. But if you are spinning in a tornado, it’s hard to distinguish between the things that are just racing by you that you should let pass, and the things that are racing by that you should reach out with all of your might and hold onto like your very life depends on it.

IMG_2227It sounds dramatic but the truth is that these are the tiniest moments in life. Maybe that is why we cannot see that they are so meaningful without a comparison.  Like sitting on the back patio, drinking coffee and talking to my husband as we watch Canine Etiquette 101 and Tug o’ War 201. Or really checking in with my team to make sure that they are not too overwhelmed with managing school and work from home. Laughing with girlfriends over Zoom as we have our monthly dinner party.  

What I can and cannot do right now has illuminated what I value. It has slowed the tornado to a brisk breeze, allowing those heavy things that plague my To Do List to fall to the ground, and allowing me to hug the things that lift my spirit. It has separated the boredom remedies from the soul feeders. As things pick up again, I hope that I will examine each thing I add back in and try to see it for what it truly is. I am guessing there are a few things that I have not been able to do in the last 8 weeks, that I will chose not to do in the future. I will hold them up in comparison. I will replace them with the things that matter more.

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What will you let go of? What will you hold onto?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

When Dreams are the Real Deal

Have you ever had one of those dreams that is so real you wake up with a start, gasping for air, heart pounding, momentarily stunned to find yourself in your own bed, safe and sound? It happens to me.  I have always had very real, very complicated dreams. II could remember them allI would probably have enough material to be the next Steph(v)en (as in Spielberg, King or Hawking).  Usually my dreams make no sense to me. I’ve heard that people can decipher dreams.  That may be true, but I don’t think I will spend any time on the one where I am walking backwards in bare feet through muddy jeep tracks in culottes and a Yes concert t-shirt with my Daisy BB gun slung over my shoulder shouting orders at bunny rabbits.  I would never wear culottes, first of all.  I definitely wouldn’t wear them with a concert t-shirt. My fashion choice in that one was not even the most disturbing element, as you can well imagine.  There are other dreams that are more common and obvious, but still truly terrifying. The worst one of all, which has many variants, is the school nightmare.  In that one, it’s my senior year in college. I realize that I never attended a single class and I am late for finals.  That dream featured regularly as a sympathy nightmare during finals week when I was a teacher and a principal.   

Last night, I had one of those dreams. It was so vivid; I woke up nearly in tears.  In the dream, I walk into my kitchen and my dad is standing there.  It isn’t my 2018 dad. It is my 1970s dad. I know that because he is big and booming.  In the 80s, we built a house, he leaned out from all of the labor.  This was definitely 1970s dad.  He is wearing an Aran sweater, thick and soft, the color of milk. I remembered he told me how the Irish clans each had their own cable pattern of Aran sweater so that the fishermen’s bodies could be easily identified no matter how long they were at sea.  He is standing at the kitchen counter and I am stunned to see him. I know he has passed away.  He isn’t sick. He is standing on his own, healthy and strong.  He wraps me in a hug so deep and strong I can feel it in my heart. I can feel his heavy hand patting my shoulder blades the way he did when I was small and sad.  He says a phrase I’ve heard a hundred times, “Hey there, it’s OK pal.”  It is as mushy as he gets.  Someone says to me, “He isn’t gone” but I know that this is not true. I hold onto him anyway because I know I will soon lose the feel of the cable knit on my cheek, the warmth of his hug, the weight of his presence.  When I wake up, I know it is a dream. He has passed. Nothing will change that.  But for a few moments, it felt so real.  

Though I rarely even think about my dreams, let alone attempt to decipher them, I could not ignore this one for the lingering sorrow it evoked.  It made me wonder why we dream at all.  What does it accomplish?  This dream made me miss him so painfully. I certainly wouldn’t choose that feeling, so there has to be something else at play here.  Of course, I turned to research first.  In an article on the Psychology Today website, Michael J. Breus sited these theories on why we dream: 

  • A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage. 
  • An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life. 
  • A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance. 
  • The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep. 
  • A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third. 
  • A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges. 

(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream, Accessed October 19, 2019) 

I reject the theory that dreams are merely biochemical changes or electrical impulses.  I don’t have any scientific basis for rejecting that theory, I just think it’s unlikely that it comes down to nothing more than a biological process.  As I thought about the dream, its meaning seemed pretty simple really. I miss him. I especially miss the 1970s him, when we were the closest. I miss that time of life when my dad could make everything better.  The purpose of  the dream was not so obvious, though.   

To every thing there is a season,  

and a time to every purpose under the heaven. 

Ecclesiastes 3:1 

I would guess that this is all coming up on a deeper level because I am missing my own child who is away at college. We visited her last weekend. It was so great to hug her and catch up. I soaked up her laughter and wicked wit. I reveled in her emphatic explanations and dramatic stories.  I was filled with joy to meet her friends.  Though she is safe and happy, and right where she should be, I do miss her and I do worry about her. I am pretty sure my psyche was taking advantage of sleep to help me process these feelingsIf I am honest, it helped me to see that, on some level, I have tried to block out missing her because she is so happy and safe, and right where she should be. I want to protect her from missing us as well. That probably is not logical, but then feelings rarely are.     

 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there,

wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams

no mortal ever dared to dream before. 

Edgar Alen Poe  The Raven 

 

Whatever the real purpose of dreams, I got the message loud and clear on this one. My dad is right, it is going to be OK. She is going to be OK. It is OK to miss her. It is even OK for her to miss us.   We do not have to be in the same room to feel that deep love of a bear hug. That is stored in our hearts and minds.  We can touch that feeling asleep or awake, together or apart.  That, my friend, is not a dream. That is the real deal. 

 

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Holding onto my dad in 1966.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

The thought absolutely counts. In fact, it might be the only thing that really does.   

I just turned 54.  Normally I like to throw myself a big party.  I like birthday parties. I like a house full of people I love- laughing, eating and talking.  I think we should celebrate life every chance we get.  But this year has been a quiet birthday. There is just so much going on at home and work that quiet and small was what my heart really needed.  I got to thinking that size, energy, and extravagance aren’t really what makes those big parties great. It is the tiny moments that happen between two people in those loud moments.  The tiny moments that forge bonds that outlast all that life throws at us. The tiny moments that remind us we are connected in ways that matter.  We are connected not just by blood or DNA but by lifetimes shared, bruises healed, miracles rejoiced, and hands held through the darkest nights and earliest mornings.  If we do it right, that kind of love becomes an avalanche that sweeps up our children, collects our friends and theirs on the fringe, who are afraid to dive in. It is not about gifts but the thought behind those gifts. The best gifts are the moments that we give each other. This year, more than ever, I am celebrating all of that on my quiet birthday.  My heart is so full.  This has been a year of reconnecting with old friends.  It has been a year of learning to lean on my pack and of being there to hold them. It has been a year of forging deep bonds with my sisters.  It has been a year of learning how all those great kids who touched my heart as teenagers turned out. (Spoiler alert for future posts–  They turned out just like I knew they would- amazing. Every. Last. One.)  

The most important moments of this year have been the moments that we have spent as a family preparing to send our daughter to college.  There have been a million, beautiful, tiny moments.  There has been laughter so deep and bold it turned to tears of joy.  There have been tears so deep and painful that only bear hugs and time could cure them.  We have walked down memory lane. We have practiced being adults. We have practiced being just a couple again. We have practiced letting go. We have practiced being in the moment.    

 

Everything is sacred

when you take time to notice.   

Big love happens

in small moments.

– JJ Heller. 

 

So, for my birthday, that is all I wanted- a day of moments.  But I got so much more.  I got 14 sealed envelopes from my daughter.  They are worth a thousand times their weight in gold. They are stronger than diamonds. I wouldn’t trade a single one for one hundred birthday parties.  What greater gift for a mom than to know you are sending a young woman into the world who has a beautiful heart and who knows that it really is the thought that counts in life.  Today I am giving myself a gift that will remind me of all of these moments and the ones yet to come.  Give it some thought.  Maybe your next present doesn’t require wrapping paper.   

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Copyright 2019 Catherine Matthews.

 

The pointless pain of wanting it to be different.

 Suffering usually comes from wanting 

things to be different than the way they are. 

– Pema Chödrön

I have always been a driven person. I don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning a situation.  I am a hunter by nature. I see a problem. I hunt it down to the exclusion of all other things. I solve it and move on to the next problem.  Ambition, drive, persistence, initiative – I feel like those are the hallmark of the American journey. They have been the hallmark of my journey. I was raised under the child rearing philosophy “pull up your bootstraps, dust yourself off, and get back on that horse”.  That came in handy because I have fallen or been thrown off more than my share of horses literally and metaphorically. My ability to move forward despite adversity has served me well. I haven’t been able to overcome everything though.  The truth is that I have “rage(d) against the dying of the light”, as Dylan Thomas put it.  It is not the hard things that I have overcome which wear me out. It is the things beyond my control, the unexpected, the unplanned, which lay me low.

If you are invested in security and certainty, 

you are on the wrong planet. 

-Pema Chödrön 

As with so much in life, I have learned as much being a mother as I ever learned being a daughter.  It is so clear to me that we must teach our children how to deal with the obstacles in life that are beyond our control. To be clear, I don’t mean teach them to just give up at the first sign of adversity.  In fact, I think we should teach them to climb when they reach a mountain.  But when they reach that mountain, and it is snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that fact. Rather than suffering because they wish it was not snowing, I think we have to teach them to accept that the weather just is.  The weather is not permanent. The weather is not out to get them. The weather is not intentionally ruining their day. No amount of anger or tears will change the weather. I think we have to teach them to be flexible enough to abandon their dream of climbing that day and, perhaps, choose to go skiing instead. Better yet, we should teach them to be comfortable with their disappointment and just sit there enjoying the wonder and magic of a snowfall.

Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, 

what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? 

What if we said, “Yes, this is the way it is; 

this is what it means to be human,” and 

decided to sit down and enjoy the ride? 

-Pema Chödrön

One of the greatest challenges in life is to learn to be comfortable with discomfort. In fact, I think the pursuit of comfort, the avoidance of disappointment, and the unwillingness to accept our lack of control contribute to destructive forces in our lives and in our children’s lives. I think, as parents, the hardest thing we have to do is to allow our children to experience and learn from difficult feelings like disappointment, failure, loneliness, fear, sadness, and loss. We want to spare them those experiences. I know I do. I would spare my child every single tear if I had that power. But I don’t, and I shouldn’t. We want to solve their problems for them. It is painful to watch them struggle. What we need to do is hold them in compassion. We need to teach our children to hold their difficult or painful feelings in compassion. We need to acknowledge the validity of their feelings.  Most of all, we need to let them struggle with experiencing those feelings without making it better for them. We need to help them understand that discomfort and uncertainty are a part of life that they cannot avoid, and that they are not alone in that.

Nothing ever goes away 

until it teaches us 

what we need to know. 

-Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön says that “nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”  I believe that is true.  I believe it is especially true when it comes to suffering from those things in life that we wish could be different.  See if it is true.  When you are standing at the base of that mountain and it starts to snow, put on your skis or, better yet, build a fire and brew some cocoa.  Let go of the wish that it was sunny.  Let go of your suffering from wanting things to be different than the way they are. Accept the snow for what it is – impermanent.

 

I picked this picture for this blog because I think it illustrates my point exactly.  We were at Kalaloch for spring break. As is typical on the Washington coast in spring, the weather was stormy and cold. We bundled up and took our cues from our little girl who could not have cared less about the weather. She wanted to play on the beach.  Rather than bemoan the conditions, we dug in and built a mud castle.  It was bliss!

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Battles of Courage and Love: Cindy’s Journey 

She skated into town in 10th grade. I always worried about the new kids. I had a lot of experience being the new kid.  I knew that it was infinitely harder when you landed in a small town where lifelong friendships were forged in bassinettes.  She didn’t strike me as a country girl either. She held herself with the grace of a ballerina- head perched delicately on her swan-like neck, gliding through the halls.  When she smiled, it bloomed from her heart.  We were her 11th school, but you wouldn’t know it. She didn’t have that tentative attitude of someone who guards their heart knowing they could be leaving soon.  She was all in. By the luck of the draw, she came in a year that brought several new faces.  She could have clung to the safety of shared experience but she didn’t limit her circle of friends.  I had her in Leadership class where she shared her gift for bringing people together and mobilizing them.

It would be 20 years before I saw her again. A couple of months ago, I ran into her at a reunion.  I was struck by how little had changed. She is still that inside-and-out beautiful person she always was. Her laugh still fills the room and lifts your heart.  That light still shines in her eyes.  All that would have been extraordinary on its own, as I think we all dull a bit as life experiences tamp down that idealistic energy of our teen years.  With Cindy, it was remarkable.  Not long ago, while trying to clear an error from the ultrasound machine she was using, she ran the probe across her side and discovered a tumor later determined to be a rare form of cancer called Epithelioid Hemangioendothelioma (EHE).  You wouldn’t know this insidious disease was ravaging her interior from her attitude.  When she asked if she could tell me her bucket list, my heart clenched at the thought of this thirty-something spitfire making a list of things she wants to do before the end. As she said though, when cancer happens, things get real.  I was prepared for a list of earthly luxuries. Who would blame her if she wanted to bask in the sun of a Mediterranean beach or sail over a mountain in a parachute?  Who would deny her petting a giraffe on the plains of Africa or driving a race car on an Indy track?  But she did not want any of that. And yet, her eyes lit up as if she was fantasizing about the most decadent of adventures. When she leaned in and she told me her dream, I was mesmerized.

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As we all do, she had the idea for a long time and thought that she had even longer to realize it.  Perhaps she would do it when she retired someday.  Now that the somedays are numbered, she cannot afford to wait.  With the uncertainty of her future now, she is driven to honor the memory of her grandfather, Weldon Thomas, by telling his story.  I could see what a tremendous influence he must have had on her life.  Weldon’s granddaughter was the second-born of a modest family of five who wanted to be a skater so badly that she went out at 14 and got her own sponsors to pay the exorbitant coaching and competition fees.  Weldon’s granddaughter is the girl who never lost touch of joy and love despite adversity. She is the product of a man who lived rejoicing in the positive, never letting the negatives jade him – and Weldon Thomas had every reason to become jaded. Master Sargeant Weldon Thomas, 11th Armored Division, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion, Headquarters Company, Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon, was among the young men who saw the worst of the atrocities men are capable of.  The horrors of war and concentration camps did not extinguish the light of courage and love that he had. He passed that light on to his granddaughter. He passed on a sense of justice and human kindness. He passed on the will to fight for what is right and good in the world. He passed on his indominable spirit and fearlessness to live every day as the gift that it is.

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Cindy never got to item two on her bucket list when she was talking to me.  As she flipped through the first of three 4-inch binders filled with the research she has already collected, it is clear basking in the sun will have to wait until she tells the story of her grandfather and his compatriots’ march across Europe to liberate Mauthausen Concentration Camp. It will have to wait until she tells the story of his courage in spiriting photographs of war criminals out of Germany. It will have to wait until she tells the story of his selfless commitment to helping his mother raise his siblings when his father was mercilessly killed. It will have to wait until she tells the story of how none of that extinguished the light of courage and love in Weldon Thomas. Cindy Thomas Obregon is living proof of that.

 

Cindy Thomas Obregon is working on a documentary about her grandfather and his battalion in World War II. You can follow Cindy’s Journey at cindysstory.home.blog  .

If you would like to support Cindy, she is raising money for this effort and to help with her medical costs:

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Big Love

Last weekend, our daughter graduated from high school.  I brought three packages of tissues to the ceremony and a camera with a 600 mm lens. I was not going to miss her face as she walked across the stage. I was prepared to weep openly, unapologetically, for two hours. I didn’t open a single package. Actually, that is not true. I got a fingerprint on my glasses and used a tissue to clean them.  I did not, however, shed a single tear.

IMG_2671.JPGDon’t get me wrong. I have cried thinking about graduation for the past year.  I just did not cry that day, as I imagined I would. The truth is that I could not have been anything but joyful on that day.  

As I confessed earlier, I was in a flurry of activity getting ready. My youngest sister and I were planting flowers and decorating the house the day before graduation.

DSC02155.JPGWe strung twine on the walls and hung pictures of my daughter with family and friends throughout her life.  As I looked at all the big moments and the small ones, all my fears and sadness slipped away.  I saw her dressed as a snowflake riding on my dad’s shoulders.  I saw her wide-eyed on her grandmother’s lap reading a book. I saw her giggling in her silly uncle’s arms and snuggling with her cousin.  I saw her bouncing on the bed in a cabin at Kalaloch wearing red suspenders her dad bought for her in an Ace Hardware store in Forks. I saw her growing older in the arms of her aunts. I saw her playing basketball and softball, boxing, skating, rowing, and tumbling. I saw her laughing and hugging her best friends who held her close through heartbreak and loss, and shared mischief, laughter and joy.

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I saw her hand in hand walking down the beach with her dad and riding with me top down in the sun. I saw her with the teachers who shaped her education and her character. I saw her with the community of family we have made with our friends – the aunties, uncles, cousins, and grandparents not of birth but of love still the same.  That string of pictures held the first chapters of a life built on love. Not much to cry about there. Unless you are crying tears of joy. 

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On the day of graduation, my dearest friends pitched in to get ready for the party.  I could not have pulled it off without them. They worked so hard to set everything up while we were at the ceremony so that we could have the party while my family was in town.  I have the kind of friends who grab their keys and are out the door before you even ask for help. They are the kind of friends who pull together for each other no matter what. I realized that she will be just fine. Because I know, in good times and bad, I am surrounded by big love from family and friends. And that is what we have raised her in- big love.

Leading up to this day, as I suspect all graduates do, our daughter has had moments of fear and sadness. She will miss her friends.  Girls cuddlingShe will miss the safety of a community that supports her.  She will be challenged to go farther academically and personally that she has thus far. I have reminded her that she is ready. I know she will make friends. I know that she will achieve her goals.  I have assured her that she has a safety net of people who love her and will be there to support her as she takes these first steps into independence, even when she is away at college. 

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On graduation day, I realized that we too are ready as parents. I realized that we too have a safety net of people who love and support us. They will be there as she takes these steps away from us. They will be there for her and they will be there for us.  And we will be there for them when the time comes with big love. 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

Walking Away

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Obstacles and Opportunities

My career got off to a rocky start.  The ink was still drying on my degree and teaching certificate, as I set out to find my first teaching job.  With the optimism of Shirley Temple and the enthusiasm of a Mouseketeer, I combed the job postings.  I soon discovered that the widely-advertised science teacher shortage did not apply to biology teachers of which there was a disturbing glut. Undeterred, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and went back to school. I subbed during the day and went to school in the evenings to finish my chemistry and general science endorsements. Having suffered through Rocks for Jocks and Intro to Weather, I was again hopeful. But it was not to be.  The next school year was forever marred by the tragic bunny boot accident of 1990 wherein I blew out my back.  I was out of commission for six months. When I was finally back in action, there were statewide teacher strikes.  I was starting to think that the Universe was sending me a message that my stubborn Greco-Celtic nature refused to see: You are not supposed to be a teacher.

I was desperate to find a job when a friend gave me a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute by Bolles.  It seemed like a sign.  I spent a couple of weeks reading the book and diligently completing each exercise.  It was the first time I intentionally considered what I needed in a job, or really thought about my personal characteristics in relationship to a job.  I just always knew in my heart I was a teacher.  (I think I convinced every child I ever babysat that “School” was a very fun game all kids played.)  I pored over each page like the book was the map to a long-buried treasure.  At the end of the all of the exercises, I was supposed to select someone, who knew me well and would be completely honest, and share the results.  I selected my husband, who knows me best of all and who is incapable of anything less than brutal honesty.  I made a poster out of all of the exercises and proudly explained what I had done. I told him that somehow all of this information pointed to what I was supposed to be in life.  I asked him, not without fear, “So what do you think this all says I should be?”  He looked at the poster, took a beat and said, “I think it says you should be a teacher.” I don’t know what I was expecting but that was not it.  “A teacher?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said, “It’s obvious.”  I probably should have felt reassured or comforted by his pronouncement.  Instead, I just stared at the board looking at the “obvious”. All that work and reflection, and I already was what I was supposed to be?! Once that sunk in, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to looking for a teaching job. And I admitted to my husband that he was right.

I think with all of the obstacles I encountered in getting a teaching job, I just assumed that I had made an error.  I assumed that I was really supposed to become something else in life.   I forgot that I loved teaching. I forgot that I was never happier than when I was in the classroom. I forgot how exciting it was to see that moment when a kid got something and the lights went on.  I forgot that obstacles sometimes are just obstacles and not a billboard from the Great Power of the Universe warning you off from some horrible error you are about to make.

Last weekend, I went to a reunion and visited with students I taught over 20 years ago.  As we reminisced and laughed, that period of my life came rushing back with the kind of clarity you only get when remembering something that was really special in your life.  After all of the struggles to find a job, I ended up in a small town where I taught science and coached volleyball, basketball and track. It was the perfect place for me. I knew, even in the hardest of times, that I was where I was meant to be, doing what I was meant to do.

 

I chose this picture from the reunion for this post because it reminds me of special kids and the adventure of teaching them.  It was so great to catch up with them and hear about their adventures in life.  It was an amazing day.  I am grateful for all of the obstacles that led me to that town and those kids.  Side note, the chicken is locally famous for being the star of a senior prank played out over generations in the town. It was a great reminder the mischief and mystery of working with teenagers!

chicken pic.jpg

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

You know, when you know.

It has been my experience that kids hit certain milestones at different times. It’s tempting to think life is like school with its chronological march from Kindergarten to the senior year, as if time were the only determinant.  The fact is that most of what happens in a child’s life is based on a whole host of unpredictable factors, and time is rarely at the top of that list. That is unless we, as parents, try to force children to adhere to a schedule of accomplishments.  While there are some timelines that might, if missed, be a cause for concern, most are not. My daughter took forever to learn to crawl, for example. At first, I was concerned and, much to my embarrassment now, I could be found often demonstrating it on the floor. It didn’t work. Once she finally learned to crawl, she didn’t have much interest in it.  It seemed like she went from sitting up to walking to running, overnight. She’s pretty coordinated now so I don’t think she missed anything by shortening the crawling phase.   

I found I was ready for many things long before she was.  Then there were other things she jumped into right away without so much as dipping one toe in the water.  Riding a bike? She spent most of the time on the ground.  Ice skating?  She was a speed demon from the moment I first laced those blades on.  I remember at the end of second grade thinking that it was time for her to go to an overnight camp. Her cousins all had by her age.  I myself had many fond memories of riding horses and swimming at Camp Don Bosco. As I do, I set about researching the possibilities and came up with a list of camps in our general area with activities she might be interested in.  After dinner one night, I pulled out the glossy, brightly colored camp brochures to show them to her. After extolling the virtues of each camp, I wished that I could go to camp. In my naiveté, I thought we were really just going to pick out the camp and get her signed up. I was a little worried actually that she would want to go to several camps which could get very expensive. She looked interested as she waited patiently for me to finish my sales pitch. As soon as I put the last brochure down, excited to find out which she had picked, she looked up at me with the kindest eyes. She put her tiny hand over mine, patted it gently, and said, “Oh, mama, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?”  Now, my first thought, which I wisely kept to myself, was “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for you to go to camp for a week!”   I was momentarily speechless. I wasn’t really sure what the appropriate response was. Of course, my mama mind was cycling with ‘is this normal?’, ‘is this a good thing or a bad thing?’, and my favorite ‘did I do something to cause her not to want to go to camp?’.  So, I did what I always did when I did not understand her. I asked, “Why don’t you want to go to camp?”  She did what she always does. She told me the truth.  She wanted to go to camp. She just didn’t want to spend the night.  And so, she did. She went to loads of summer camps. She never went to an overnight camp.  Of course, I worried that it would be an issue as she got older. But soon enough and without us, she went on sleepovers, and then sports trips, and even vacations with friends. She knew when she was ready.  I have learned to trust her to let me know.  

A couple of months ago, she called a Family Meeting. She’s famous for that. Over the years, she has called them on a number of critical topics.  She called one when she discovered that, as far as she could tell, other mothers did not have to go to meetings.  She called one when she decided that her father and I did not kiss in public enough. She regretted calling that one. She called one to make an argument for a cell phone on the basis of personal safety.  I knew we were in for a doozy when she opened this particular Family Meeting with “OK, don’t say anything until you hear all the details. Promise you will keep an open mind.” I could feel the steel doors shutting on the panic room in my mama mind.  She wanted to take a trip with one of her best friends to a city 2700 miles away. While she would be staying with family, they would have a lot of free time to explore the city and sit on the beach on their own.  Slam. Deadbolt. Bar lock.  And then I remembered and said, “Oh, sweetie, I don’t think we are really ready for that. Do you?” I thought I had her. Unlike me ten years ago, though, she replied, “Oh. Heck yes, we are ready for that!”  After lengthy deliberations, her father and I decided that, though this was a big and scary step for us, she was ready. She’s a smart kid with good judgment and so are her friends.  This was a chance to explore independence with a safety net. She would be staying with family friends. This step was not on my timeline.  I was counting on 6 more months before she was in a different city on her own. It was definitely on her timeline, though. She was ready.  I knew I could trust that. This trip was as much about knowing she was ready, as it was about knowing that we are ready. Ready to let go. Ready to trust that she can take care of herself. Ready to trust her to ask for help when she needs it.  Ready to trust her to work things out on her own in her own way.  I do think we are ready for that.  

I selected this picture because it was her first time rowing at the Brentwood Regatta.  She was staying with the team and I loved that she was rowing. That was until I looked out at the ocean bay she was racing on.  But once again, she knew she was ready and she was right. I had to trust her and I am glad I did.

DSC_1618

Pull
(1/800 sec., f/6.3, 600 mm, 800 ISO)

 

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Make a Habit of It

It’s 4:15 AM and my REM-induced travels are abruptly ended by my clock radio blaring Miranda Lambert. In silence, I get up, get dressed, and brush my teeth. In the workout room, I turn on the fan and put my bike shoes on.  I spend 30 minutes on the bike, change shoes and put in 30 minutes on the Erg. I turn off the fan, turn out the lights in the work out room, and shut the door so that Buttercup does not eat any more of my gear.  She is a young Boxer with a wicked addiction to Blistex.  In the kitchen, I make a smoothie and drink it while checking my emails.  I take a shower, put on my makeup and get dressed.  I load up the Jeep, open the garage door, turn the Jeep on, back out and go to work. I do this every weekday.  Mostly with unconscious precision.  Oh sure, I have occasionally shown up for work in dark navy heels when I should have worn black but that is more an aging eyesight issue than an attention issue.  I have never, for example, backed out before opening the garage door.  The fact is that all of that is habit.  I do it mostly without thinking, in the right order, and with nearly 100% accuracy.  It is a habit set in a specific context. I am home. It is morning. It is a weekday.  I don’t have to think about it all which is fortunate.  Imagine how big our heads would have to be if we had to consciously think about every single thing we do, every time we do it.  If every time we put our keys in the car, we had to remember how to drive or think about how to get to work, our noggins would have to be enormous to hold all those neurons.  Most of what we do is routine and habitual.  If you don’t believe me, think about what you did yesterday.  Try to remember the details of what you did.  I am not talking about the memorable events like a conversation with a friend. I am talking about the thousands of things you filtered out as routine and unimportant as you drove through life.  Just the other day, my daughter drove us somewhere that I would usually drive to.  I could not believe what I had missed on that trip I make hundreds of times. There was literally a huge new building on a corner that I had driven by repeatedly without notice. Missing a building is probably not a huge concern, but I know I miss other things being on autopilot.  I know because I have an 18-year-old conscience living with me. When I ask her a question that she already answered when I was not fully present, she lets me know, “I literally told you this like 3 minutes ago.”  Cue cringe and apology.

The truth is that not all habits are bad. They save us time. Driving to work would take forever if I had to think about every little action it takes to get there. Red light means stop.  I should stop. How do I do that again?  Foot on the brake and clutch. Is it the right foot brake or left foot to brake? Habits save us from needing that enormous head of neurons I mentioned before. Habits leave room for things we think are more important.  If I don’t have to think about rotating my leg on the bike, I can mentally compose my blog for example.  However, not being fully present, and therefore missing my life as it is actually happening right now, is a drawback to practicing habits.  In addition, many habits are actually unhealthy, harmful, or simply unwanted, as Hugh Byrne points out in The Here-and-Now Habit.  Though even the negative habits develop out of a positive intention, they are nonetheless harmful.  Smoking, for example, is often used as an attempt to combat anxiety and overeating is often used to provide a sense of comfort.  Some people use alcohol and drugs to numb themselves to emotional or psychological pain.  Gambling gives some people a thrilling rush of adrenalin.  Unfortunately, those habits must be continually fed and, worse, they are often followed by painful consequences.  These are the extremes, of course, and the hardest to change.

But everyone has some habit that is interfering with living life to its fullest.  Maybe social media has become a distraction that keeps you from being fully present with family and friends or prevents you from accomplishing other goals.  Maybe you want to be more active, but you just cannot stop watching Criminal Minds (not judging just noticing here).  Maybe you want to make healthy food choices.  That has been a goal of mine.  I have a sweet tooth of epic proportion. I had been doing very well making good choices until the Christmas holiday came along.  It started with a small piece of apple pie on Christmas Eve with a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream. I thought I could handle it. I mean it was made with apple. That is a fruit after all. And apparently, vanilla is a bean.  Just saying.   But alas, no. That apple pie was my gateway sweet and it led directly to chocolate.  Before I knew it, I was at a Starbucks, wild-eyed and thirsting for a mocha, extra hot with whipped.  It wasn’t pretty.  The rest is just too horrible to mention. Suffice it to say peppermint and ginger were involved.   I am not proud.  It reminded me of this guy I used to work with.  Whenever something intense would happen at work, he would start patting all of his pockets.  Then he would stop talking and I could tell he was having this conversation in his head, “Where did I leave my cigarettes?  Pants? Shirt? Car?  Damn it! I quit smoking. Why did I quit smoking?” He had quit at least 10 years before. Any kind of conflict left him searching for a lighter. I get the inclination. I made a habit of mindlessly eating chocolate and all of its confectionery cousins.  I was pretty annoyed to find myself caught in its seductive web yet again.  As I was reading The Here-and-Now Habit by Hugh Byrne, I realized that sheer willpower and intention are not enough to overcome a habit.  Eating sweets is a habit that I slipped back into without really thinking about it.  Unlike driving my car or getting ready for work in the morning, it is a habit that I want to change and the only way that is going to happen is by bringing awareness and attention to it.  I don’t want to think about which foot to use to brake the Jeep. I need to think about what I am doing when I am wandering past that bowl of truffles.  I can get the same feeling of well being and pleasure from the endorphins I get cycling as I get from the dopamine eating sweets.  When it is all said and done, I feel like cheering after a great workout, not so much after a truffle.  The insidious thing about harmful or unwelcome habits it that they can happen without our conscious intention.  Repeated actions in a similar context is all they need to burrow into our minds and bodies. The amazing thing is that we can develop positive habits that help us to live life to its fullest.  All you need is awareness, attention and intention. In other words, be present.  It is what gets me up at 4:15 every morning.

What habits are holding you back?

More importantly, what habits would make your life better?

 

I chose this photography of my New Year’s Day bike ride with my best friend because it reminds me of how much better cycling is than chocolate especially when you get to do it outdoors with your best friend.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Endings and Beginnings

I do not like endings.  I do not like finales.  It is probably why I don’t watch the Oscars or stay awake until the last votes are counted on election night.  I much prefer those hours and days before the endings, days that are thick with anticipation and ripening possibilities. Even as a kid, I savored the days leading up to Christmas or my birthday, waiting and wondering like Schrödinger with his cat. I didn’t peak or shake any boxes.  I knew that when the actual day came, and the gifts were opened, it would all be over. It isn’t even about gifts really.  I never liked the last day of school or the finish line in a race or the last page of a good book.  All of those signal the end and knowing how it is going to turn out. Sure, the end was always followed by something new, but I grieved those fleeting moments slipping into my history.  After a year of planning for a wedding, in one day it was all over.  Though that ending was the beginning of decades of adventures in marriage, I am never going to have those precious moments again.  In our checklist world, our accomplishment accumulation culture, it is tempting to be so focused on the end that we forget to enjoy the journey. We forget to savor each of the singular, irreplaceable moments that happen on the way to the end.

New Year’s Eve always hits me as one of the biggest of endings – the end of an entire year. On December 31st, I know how it turned out.  Though it is followed by New Year’s Day and the chance to get on the roller coaster again, I am sad to see the year end.  Frankly, none more than this year.  As the countdown begins and the ball starts to drop in Times Square, it will herald in a year that will surely have more endings and beginnings than most.  In the coming year, our only daughter will graduate. In the fall, we will help her pack and drive her across the mountains where she will go to college. As with any child, she has been the center of our world for 18 years. In that time, I am not proud to say, there were a few moments I wished away.  Carrying a diaper bag comes to mind.  I know I wished life would fast forward through potty training. At the time, I happily would have skipped teaching her second-grade math the year she went into the Highly Capable program.  I remember praying for an end to the “no” years.  Now, as she talks about decorating her dorm room and finding a compatible roommate, I am remembering each of those moments as the gift that they were – the giggles and the worries, the hugs and the tears, the medals and the bruises. At the risk of sounding maudlin, the truth is that things will change around here in her absence.  Her dog will no doubt expect the same welcome at the foot of our bed that she has become accustom to.  We will hear about her adventures long distance which will undoubtedly mute her emphatic descriptions and quick wit.  We will have more time alone together.  We will pick up old hobbies or start new ones.  That is exactly what is supposed to happen. Children grow up, become independent and go out into the world.  It is the perfect ending and beginning all at once.

So, am I going to get rid of all my checklists? Abandon goal setting? Not likely.  However, I am going to commit to the journey as deeply as I commit to the accomplishment in this coming year of endings and beginnings.

  • I will be present every day. I am not getting any of these moments back.
  • I will see things not as ending but as stops along the way in a greater journey. Changing my perspective changes everything.
  • I will say what needs to be said.
  • I will let go and accept the changes that will inevitably come. I know that I suffer more by wishing things could be different than from the change itself.

 

I selected this photograph, which I took outside of Concrete, WA in late winter, because it reminds me of that tipping point between the end of winter and the beginning of spring when the forest is still quite dormant but the sun is beginning to climb in the sky.

Dawn pacific northwest forest in winter

Dawn in Concrete
(1/500 sec., f/11, 20 mm, 360 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

I’ll see it when I believe it.

Beliefs are an amazing thing.  Though intangible, they have a weight and power all their own.  They can propel us to great heights or they can keep us chained to the ground.  What is a belief after all- it is just a thought you have over and over until you take it to be the incontrovertible truth.  Maybe it starts with evidence. I believe in gravity, for example. That belief is reinforced as I stick to the ground with every step.  Maybe it starts with intuition or faith.  I believe in a powerful, loving God. I just know it in my heart. Maybe it starts with a story you have been told so many times that you now tell it to yourself. You accept it as a belief – true and solid.  Sometimes those stories raise us up.  I believe I am strong, and that healing is my superpower.  So, I push through rehabbing injuries without fear no matter how painful. I believe unquestioningly that I will heal and be stronger.  Those stories in our heads – true or not – raise us up because we fulfill our own prophesy.  I will get back on the bike and endure 5 minutes of pain because I know I will get to 60 minutes without pain eventually. Every time I do that, I believe it all the more. The reality though is that having evidence or faith or a recurring mental story does not make our beliefs true.  While that plays in our favor when we are facing adversity and we need to fearlessly believe in our ability to overcome – true or not, negative beliefs can be a chain that holds us to the ground.

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to adopt Whole30 to improve our health. My last back surgery was extensive and, for the first time in my life, I had a very hard time rehabbing. My healing superpower seemed to be waning and I did not bounce back like I used to.  I had nearly a year with minimal exercise which led to weight gain.  Between eating according to the Whole30 guidelines and resuming my normal workouts, I have lost quite a bit of weight.  A couple of weeks ago, I decided to clean out my closet of clothes that no longer fit me. I didn’t try any of them on.  I just looked at the sizes and got rid of the ones I thought were too big.  The other day, I grabbed a suitcoat on my way out the door as I headed to work.  I hate driving in a coat, so I didn’t put it on until I got to the office.  As soon as I put it on, I realized it was way too big. It hung off my shoulders, the sleeves resting on my knuckles.  I was shocked frankly. I even looked at the size to see if I had missed it as I culled the closet.  And then it hit me. Even though I had the very real and physical evidence of numbers dropping on the scale and clothes getting too big, I still had in my head a belief about my size which was in fact very inaccurate.  The idea that my beliefs could be wrong should not have been an epiphany. After all, the world was flat, and the sun revolved around the earth at one point.  It is clear that historical events can be retold from different and conflicting perspectives and still be deeply held beliefs by the tellers.  I even accept on some level that my general beliefs about the world could be wrong.  I have a harder time reconciling my deeply held beliefs about myself even when there is evidence to the contrary.  In the case of persevering through difficult things, I am glad I believe, true or not, that I am a strong person because that has contributed to so many good things in my life – healing, education, raising a family, adventures, and working.  But what about the beliefs that chain me?  What about the beliefs, true or not, that I am not even aware of that guide my actions in a way that hold me back from being my best self?  Those beliefs are like that jacket that does not fit but I keep putting it on because I am unaware that I have changed and no longer need it.  It is time to get rid of the jacket.  Some people say, “I will believe it when I see it.”  I believe they are wrong. I know I will see it when I believe it.  What beliefs are holding you back?

I selected this photograph because it represents freedom to me. This lone sailboat crossed the path of the ferry I was on. It seemed to be floating along on the wind unconcerned.

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Sailing Away
(1/200 sec., f/20, 105 mm, 100 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Empathy Gap – Don’t Fall In

As soon as I shut the door, I knew. I heard the click of the lock and my stomach sank to my feet. I collapsed forward. My forehead hit the top of the window giving me an unobstructed view of my purse and both sets of my car keys sitting prominently on the passenger seat mocking me. Don’t ask why I had both sets of car keys, I have no idea. With a symphony of colorful words going through my mind, I raced around the Jeep trying each door even though I knew they too would be locked. I called my husband. I’m not sure what kind of magic I thought he could do from 15 miles away. His first question, “Where’s your spare?”, had me banging my head on the glass. He must have sensed I was a woman on the edge because he didn’t ask why I had them both.  He did say the obvious, “You’re going to have to call a locksmith.” There I stood in the freezing garage, boot-stomping, dirt-kicking mad. Any thought of going back in the building was crushed when I realized my security card lay next to my keys on the seats of the Jeep. I was supposed to be meeting a dear friend to celebrate her birthday and I was already a bit late.

Pacing around the garage, I Googled “Locksmiths near me” and quickly picked the first one on the list.  It was a risk, but I didn’t have time for background checks and online reviews.  The man who answered sounded far away, but what he was lacking in proximity, he made up for in enthusiasm. He said he would be there in 20 so I called my friend to tell her I would be late. I’m never late. I hate being late. Lateness stresses me out.  My dear friend, when I told her my sad tale, wondered if I was safe. She asked if I needed help. She assured me that it was fine. Of course, she said all that. I would have said all that in her position. That’s what friends do.  But in my head, I was not so kind.  “I cannot believe you did this again.”  “Focus on what you are doing!” “Get organized already.” The truth is that the last time I did this was 11 years ago. I know that because it was in front of the Holiday Inn in Pullman, Washington on the Sunday morning after I graduated. I went out to clear the snow off my Jeep and I locked the key in the ignition with the engine running.  So, I don’t lose my keys all the time.  (I did back in the 80’s but that is a whole story all by itself.) Second, I am generally focused. I was distracted by a particularly hilarious string of texts my sisters were sending.  Who wouldn’t be?  Finally, organized? I am not neat, but I am very organized. So, my whole mental punishment was way out of line and I should have just followed my dear, sweet friend’s compassionate lead.  I did not.  It was made worse because it was the end of the day. People were slowly heading to the garage to leave and, of course, wondered why I was pacing around like a bull before the fight.  “No. My jeep does not have electronic locks. Why? It makes it easier to take the doors off! Do you happen to have a tool for that on you?”  “Yes. I know it is not smart to carry both sets of keys.”  They meant well but let’s face it- I was in a mood.

The locksmith arrived earlier than he estimated. I was right, he was enthusiastic.  In fact, he seemed perfectly suited to the job.  He moved around the Jeep quickly, wasting no time assessing the situation and determining his best course of action.  He was a bit thrown by the whole “no electronics” in the door thing.  He must have asked me four times what year the Jeep was and, each time, he was surprised when I said 2018. He was reassuring. I would guess he is faced with angry, stressed people all day long.  I didn’t seem to faze him a bit. It took him only 15 minutes to open it up and I was on the road. I had only five miles or so to go but I hit every single light.

By the time I got to the restaurant, I was pretty much done. And then, as I sat in my Jeep in the parking lot, I took a breath. I remembered why I was there. I was there to celebrate the birthday of a woman I dearly love.  I was there to spend a couple of precious hours with someone I only get to see about once a month.  I was in danger of missing those moments because I was so irritated with myself over a fairly small mistake that was fixed in 15 minutes for $72.  It reminded me of something I heard Dr. Adolph Brown say about empathy last week at a conference I attended. His presentation was one of those heart-swelling, tear-inducing, thought-provoking, inspirational events that feed my heart, soul and mind. (Seriously, if you have the chance to hear him speak, do not miss it. You’ll thank me.)  I love that type of speaker- the ones who give me a visceral learning experience and leave me not merely inspired but changed.  He was talking about the “empathy gap”. This was a presentation to a group of educators, so his remarks were related to working with students. He talked about the importance of empathy. Empathy is the missing piece of the puzzle when we are trying to figure out how to reach students and engage them in learning.  If we have empathy, it changes how we look at each other and that, in turn changes how we treat each other.  If we take the time to learn about and understand another person, rather than assuming we understand them based on what they look like or act like, we can develop a relationship.  Learning is about relationships. Kids- and adults for that matter- cannot learn well without a sense of safety, belonging, and understanding that comes through positive, healthy relationships. Dr. Brown also reminded the adults in the room that the ability to have empathy requires that we develop compassion for ourselves.  We cannot teach children what we do not know ourselves. If we do not have compassion for ourselves, we will have difficulty having compassion and empathy for others.  Social emotional learning is not just for children.  As adults, we need to attend to it as well.  So, sitting there in the parking lot, having mentally flogged myself over those keys, I reminded myself to have a little compassion and give myself a break.  I let it go so that I would not miss the present worrying about the past.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Adventure Days!

For the last couple of weekends, I have been shooting my daughter’s senior portraits.  It was so special to me that I was able to do this for her- that she wanted me to do this for her. Though I have shot a number of senior portraits and I always feel honored to do it, this one had a weight to it. I was at once thrilled and saddened at the mere thought of it.  All summer, it was on my mind. I searched through hundred of images for interesting poses. I looked at images of every park in the greater Puget Sound and into the Cascades. My husband and I even braved 14 miles of washboard and loose gravel on the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington looking for the perfect spot.   Washington was very dry last summer though.  Dismal browns covered the normally lush, emerald greens.  So, we waited until fall when the leaves began to turn to scarlet, orange and gold. Unfortunately, September was quite rainy, and we had trouble finding a dry weekend.

When the sun broke through one Saturday morning, we quickly loaded the Jeep with four changes of clothing and my camera gear and headed into the mountains. As we drove along, my daughter commandeered the stereo and the conversation. It was bliss to listen to them both.  As the miles rolled by and the cell towers disappeared, we really had the chance to talk.  I love long road trips with her. I am tickled by her quick wit, strength  and passion.  Without the distraction of social media, we have space for all the things there is never enough space for.  Finding space, I thought, was so much easier before cell phones, AP classes, Friday night football, work, sports, friends and cars. It made me think of that long stretch between diaper bags and dating boys when we just hung out together any chance we got.

When she was very young, I pronounced that, whenever she had a day off from school, we would have an Adventure Day.  I would take a vacation day and off we would go.  Sometimes we would throw around ideas for weeks ahead of time. Other times, we threw caution to the wind and waited until Adventure Day arrived.  Either way, no decisions were made until we were seated at O’Donnell’s awaiting their amazing French Toast.  Then the true negotiations began. We would throw out ideas.  Should we paint ceramics?  Drive to a city we had never visited?  Swim in the salt water at Colman Pool?  Ride a ferry? Sit on the beach?  Explore the Market? Ride bikes? The possibilities were endless. She would always say, “Let’s compromise and go with my plan.”  I would remind her what compromise means and then we would go with her plan.  After all, the truth is I just wanted a carefree day of singing to the stereo, talking about every little thing going on in her life, and listening to her laughter.  My personal favorite was Adventure Day in Bellingham.  We spent the night in town and the day exploring Fairhaven. It was a weekend that alternated between giggling girl and growing up.  On a side street, we found an antique shop that had a display of old hat with veils and feathers my grandmother might have worn as fashion. We cracked up as we tried them on, posing in the most ridiculous way and exclaiming “Daaahling, you look fa-bu-lous!”  A block away we found our kryptonite: a bookstore.  She begged me to buy a history of Africa that weighed more than her head and was sure to fill it.  She was enamored with Africa having listened to the childhood stories of my best friend’s father.  And then I was dragged into a fireplace shop whose resident dog was a Golden Retriever- apparently with a gift for getting people to stop and scratch his ears. She is powerless to pass any pup by.  And on it went, and, as usual, I was filled with wonder and awe at this growing sprite.

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Adventure Day 2014

As we drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, and the sunny skies turned to mist, then drizzle, then rain, I was not disappointed even though I knew we were not going to get the shot that day.  For I had hours that day in the car with her, scouting spots and marking them for the next sunny day.  And we talked about every little thing. And we sang to her playlist.  And we laughed.  Though not an official Adventure Day, it felt like one. (Thanks to the rain, I knew I was going to get another one.) Though unplanned and meandering, that day was precious because I knew these opportunities were dwindling fast.  Sure, we will carve out time even when she was in college, but it is time for her life to grow outward. It is time for her to have some Adventure Days without me.

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Adventure Day 2018
(1/125 sec., f/4, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

I remember when we picked him up. After months of looking, we found him at a breeder in Omak.  My husband has a knack for tracking down the best pups.  Dog-less for a year or more, we finally decided it was time for our daughter to have her own dog.  After much negotiations on breed, color and sex, we settled on a brindle Boxer of either gender. We weren’t planning to breed so it was a moot point anyway, although personally I leaned toward female dogs as I found them much more protective and loyal than males.  As the days slowly passed, I started to think that this new puppy was going to be very lonely. I mean there he would be, all day in his kennel, no one to play with.  If he was cold or scared, he would be alone.  One dog? Two dogs? How much work was it really?  Besides, they would play with each other.  If they were playing with each other, they wouldn’t be bored and eat things.  So really, two dogs are less work, if you think about it.  I can make a compelling argument for just about anything.  So, I made one -or three. I can’t remember. Fortunately, there was one pup left in the litter.  So, I was getting a puppy for her birthday too, which was totally fair after 19 hours of labor.

I am not sure how we hid this secret from our daughter, but we did. We wanted it to be a surprise and, until we had a healthy dog in hand, we did not want to get her hopes up.  On Friday, we dropped her off to spend the night with her godfather and his family.  I felt so mischievous keeping this secret that I just wanted to blurt out.  But I held it in. After all, I’m the mama and a grown woman…on the outside.  On the inside, I was a little girl, hiding at the top of the stairs waiting for Santa, holding in my giggles with both hands.

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After procuring the basic puppy necessities (and several that were definitely not), we headed east of the mountains.  We fell in love the minute we saw their googly eyes and fat bellies.  One brindle for our daughter and one fawn for me.  I had named the fawn Sir Finnegan McMuggles, but we called him Finn.  On the long ride home, the brothers (who we affectionately referred to later as the Bruise Brothers) snuggled in the back, alternately lying on top of each other. They were still asleep when we led our daughter to the truck and told her that her birthday present was on the back seat.  Of course, that didn’t last because no one can sleep through the gleeful shrieks of a little girl discovering a puppy.

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

“The brindle one is your’s. Finn is your mom’s,” my husband replied.

“Does he have a name?” she asked earnestly.

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

“I will have to think about that, “she said. “I will just call him Buddy for now.”

My husband and I looked at each other and said, at the exact same time, “The dog’s name is Buddy.”

And it was. And he was.  He was her Buddy every day.

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The Bruise Brothers were playful and loving.  I found them often sleeping on her. Later, she would sleep on them.  I was right that they would keep each other company. I was wrong that they would be less destructive together.  They were about three months old when they ate my kitchen one day. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way or a metaphoric way. I mean that literally. They ate my kitchen.  We had to remodel it.  We built them a kennel in the garage.  Boxers can jump five feet in the air easily.  Though we built the walls high, they were hard to contain.  One day, they managed to pull a Skill Saw off of a high shelf. To this day I do not know how they did it but one standing on the other’s shoulder is not beyond the realm of possibility.  By the time we got home, the only thing left was a cord, a couple bolts and the blade.  It was hard to be mad at them though. They would look at you like they knew they did something wrong, and they were really (really, really) sorry but couldn’t make any promises about better behavior in the future.  They were soft and sweet.  We always forgave them.   They always forgave us.

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Being litter mates, they were inseparable.  We kenneled them once apart and they nearly broke the wall down trying to get back together.  I made sure to tell the kennel they had to sleep together after that. Boxers have the unusual habit of sitting on each other.  These two were no exception.  At first, I could not figure out what was going on. Buddy would be laying there, and Finn would walk backward until his was on top of Buddy. Then he would just plop right down.   They both had this expression on their jowly mugs like “What? There’s nothing weird going on here.”  It was both bizarre and endearing.

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Finn passed away suddenly after having a seizure while on a walk with my husband and me.  It was such a jarring tragedy for all of us, but none more so than Buddy and our daughter. They spent days snuggled together. As she cried, Buddy burrowed in and loved her the only way he knew how- with all his heart. And he had a very big heart.  They were inseparable.  At night, I could hear her talking to him as they fell asleep.  It reminded me of all the pups I had as a kid. I was so grateful she had this loving animal to keep all her secrets.  I always knew when she had a bad day because she would lie down with him on his bed in the living room and pet his ears.  He would put his big jowly head on her belly like he was anchoring her to the earth.  He would rush to the door when her heard her car pull in and greet her with such joy.

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Two years ago, we decided he needed a friend.  It was a tough decision as he was already an older dog and we didn’t know if he would accept a puppy.  Again, my husband went on the hunt and found a breeder in Yakima.  We picked a fawn female.  Our daughter was older and much harder to hide a secret from, but we pulled it off. We needed a night without her to make sure that Buddy was fine with this new addition.  I remember I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen with her when my husband let Buddy in.  Buddy rushed to us and I was momentarily afraid that I might have misjudged the situation.  As soon as Buddy saw little Buttercup, he stopped in his tracks.  He leaned down and gave her a sniff.  He looked up to my husband.   He looked down to me. And then he started bouncing on his front paws – a sure sign of joy in a Boxer. He loved that little girl and she gave him a whole new lease on life.  He had been slowing down.  As soon as she came into our lives, he started acting like a young pup himself.  Oh sure, he schooled her more than once when she got out of hand.  Mostly though, he let her goad him into playing with him. They were inseparable. (You can follow Buttercup’s antics on Instagram: @buttercupboxerpup .)

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Last week, we said goodbye to Buddy.  We are all mourning his loss deeply.    It is worse, I think, because it is so painful to watch your child grieve the loss of her best friend.  Buddy had an accident and broke his leg. He couldn’t recover from it. We had time together to care for him. We had time to talk as a family.  Still the pain of loss is sharp.  It seems this year, we have experienced a lot of loss- too much really.  We have to remember that this is the price of big love from a big heart. What is the alternative?  To insulate yourself form the pain of loss by refusing to give or accept love.  For me, I would cry a thousand tears now than to have missed even one minute of knowing true love.  Knowing the love of a big-hearted dog – true, unconditional, freely-given, forgiving, endless, unselfish, loyal, trusting – I would not trade one tear.

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Memories Under the Big Sky

The summer before 5th grade, my father took me on a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. We planned the trip over the spring on our every-other-weekend visits.  My dad pinned a map to the wall in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Back then, the map shifted from grey to a deep green as you looked east across the page. In my child’s mind, I imagined an endless park stretching across the state.   In thick black ink, he traced the route across Washington and Idaho. The line snaked through Kalispell and north to Hungry Horse.  Montana sounded so exotic when I said it in my head- towns like Whitefish and Missoula and Great Falls. As he talked about his trips to Montana, I pictured this vast, untouched paradise of tall pines, jagged peaks and wild rivers. We were hiking in to the Hungry Horse Dam and fly fishing along the way.  It was all I could think about that spring.   He bought me some waffle stompers and a package of mole skin for the inevitable heal blisters.  He said I had to break them in so that I wouldn’t get blisters on the trip.  I loved the light brown suede that changed colors as I ran my fingers across the toe.  On our practice hikes around the reservoir in Seattle, I carried my backpack. Each time he added some weight. I was so proud of that. It was a real backpack with a metal frame like his and a belt that hugged my hips.  He showed me how to strap my sleeping bag beneath it. As I stomped along, the bag bounced on my rear end. I didn’t care. It was a small price to pay for a big adventure.  At REI, we searched the aisles for containers for food and cooking equipment.  We bought large tubes that reminded me of toothpaste containers.  He showed me how you could fill them with peanut butter and clamp the end.  He bought freeze dried beef stew in crinkly silver packets and paper boxes of hardtack.  He picked up complicated tools and clamps and rubber balls. I couldn’t follow how these would be used in the wilderness, but he assured me that they would keep us warm and dry. On the weekends that I visited, I would lie in the living room on the leather psychiatrist couch (the coveted sleepover spot) underneath his down sleeping bag staring at the map and dreaming of the trip.  I would will time to speed up and July to come quickly.

Though we left early in the morning, I was up, waffle stompers laced, before he was out of the shower. We drove all day, stopping only for necessities- donuts in North Bend at the bakery, gas and Sno Balls in Ellensburg and lunch in Spokane.  I loved long road trips with my dad. It was easier to talk to him without the phone ringing or work looming.  For hundreds of miles, we talked. He talked about his childhood and told me cautionary tales he featured heavily in.  Somewhere on the Palouse, I got the courage to ask about my mom and their divorce.  It somehow made me sad to know that they had once been in love. It was childish because of course I knew they had to have been. When there was silence, he turned the radio up and we listened to the country music stations fade in and out with each passing town. John Denver and Willie Nelson became a soundtrack for that trip.  Once we hit Idaho, he pulled off the highway to an old quarry.  He told me that he was going to show me how to shoot a gun because we would be in the wilderness and there could be bears or other wild animals.  It wasn’t a surprise that he brought a gun.  He was a hunter and I had seen his rifles. Though to this point, I was not allowed to touch them.  In solemn tones, he showed me how the gun worked. It was a long- barreled revolver. He showed me how to release the cylinder and load the bullets. He helped me pull the hammer back and sight the gun.  It took several shots to get used to the feel of the kick.  When he felt sure I was comfortable, he took it back and emptied the cylinder.  He reminded me that the gun was not a toy.  I asked him if it would kill a bear.  He said, “No. It will annoy a bear. Just shoot me. I don’t want to be eaten by a bear.”  I stared at him agape.  He put his hand on my head a shook my hair, “I’m kidding!  Just shoot it in the air. The noise will scare animals away and alert other hikers.”

When we finally arrived at the trailhead, it was everything I imagined it would be.  Heavy logs funneled hikers to the path.  The forest was dense and dark. Light shined in ladders through the boughs.  As we checked our gear, I watched a family unload and saddle their horses. They had a girl my age and I asked her if I could pet her horse.  She told me her name was Cherry and her family was riding up to the dam. I couldn’t decide what was cooler, being named Cherry or riding a horse on a trail.  The hike was long, but he let me take the lead and stopped when I got tired. The trail wound around and, as I looked across the ravines, I would see bears and deer behind us.  My dad would point out that the bears were merely stumps.  I would squint long and hard before I conceded.  It was so peaceful in the woods.  At the end of the trail, the Flathead River appeared before us bright and blue, and sparkling in the sun.  We sat there just looking at it for the longest time.  And then, for the longest time, I watched my dad fly fish.  He was never more at peace than standing knee high in a river, whipping that bamboo rod back and forth, back and forth.  The tip would dip toward the water. The line would follow slapping the fly across the surface.  There we stayed, on the banks of the river, fishing and hiking.  We sat by the fire at night and ate freeze dried beef stew and hardtack.  Somehow the food tasted so much better by a fire in the wilderness.

I dreaded the hike back, not because it was long, but because it was the beginning of the end of the trip.  I wished I was back in the spring dreaming of the trip.  I wanted the hike down and the drive back across three states to last forever.  But I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. Nothing does. Except for memories.

 

I took this photograph last summer on the Icicle River where my daughter and I were lounging in the sun with our dear friends.  Sitting in the sand with my feet in the icy water, talking with my friend and watching our girls – far from a cell tower.  It reminded me of the trip my dad and I took to Montana and the memories that last a lifetime.

Icicle River Leavenworth Washington
Icicle River
(1/500 sec., f/11, 55 mm, 400 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

I Got This, Mama!

In a couple of weeks, my daughter will begin her senior year. Stamped in my mind and on my heart is a picture of her decked out in pink from head to toe; smiling from ear to ear; proudly carrying her backpack filled to the brim with fresh school supplies on her first day of kindergarten.  She was raised in school. She was only a few weeks old when she attended her first wrestling match. She toddled on the track in the spring and by fall she was learning to walk at the football games. She gazed pie-eyed at the glittery cheerleaders and clapped gleefully at band concerts. Sometimes on the weekend, she would ride her trike up and down the hall outside my office.

So, when it came time for kindergarten, she was filled with excitement for this new adventure.  Kindergarten made her one of the big kids. I remember her earnestly checking her understanding with me one morning, “OK. So, it’s kindergarten, then high school, then college. Right mom?” To which I responded, “Uh not quite…. but close enough for now.”

I loved school.  By the time my daughter was in kindergarten, I had had 35 first days of school either as a student, teacher or principal.  But I was not prepared for this first day of school at all. I remember that I took the morning off, so I could drive her to school.  As we drove, she chattered enthusiastically from the back seat – all her questions and thoughts tumbling out in random order.  Do my friends go to this school?  Where do I eat lunch? I know my numbers, so the teacher doesn’t have to teach me that. Do I have to share my crayons? I have a backpack! What is recess? I can’t wait to have a desk.

Random stuff, earthshakingly critical to a five-year-old. She had (has) such a curious mind.  I knew she was ready for kindergarten. She could read. She had strong social skills – emphasis on social.  I knew she was ready, though I was constantly wondering if I had done enough to prepare her or made the right parenting decisions. My heart ached because this day signaled the beginning of so many changes. People would be coming in and out of her life. There would be influences beyond my control. Not just classroom learning but life learning was about to start. While I was excited to watch her grow into an adult and experience all the wonderful parts of life, I had worries too.  I had seen firsthand how challenging growing up could be even if you had the best possible parent.  What if kids were mean to her? What if she was sad or scared or needed me? What if she didn’t like math?!? What if she lost a shoe? Or went to the wrong bus line? Or daydreamed through science? Or talked too much? She is a talker and we love that about her but what if her teacher didn’t love that about her? Random, earthshakingly critical worries of a kindergarten mom.

I put a smile on my face because I thought weeping openly might put a damper on her excitement. If your mom, who is a principal, is crying on the way to kindergarten, that has to be a bad sign right? So, I smiled on the outside. I parked near the classroom. Before I could get around the car, she bounced out of the back seat dragging the backpack behind her. She shrugged it on and grabbed my hand. We walked (well, I walked, and she skipped) to the classroom where pairs of students and their parents were standing.  The parents looked around nervously, afraid to make eye contact.  I think the general feeling was that seeing someone else who wanted to cry somehow would open the flood gates. The kids took those tentative first steps toward friendship with the awkward ‘hi’ or ‘what’s your name?’ spoken in tiny voices.   Finally, the door opened and a petite, curly-haired woman exclaimed “Good morning, boys and girls! Come in.”  Some children grabbed their parents’ legs.  Others stood stock still.  Others took a step then waited unsure.  Mine turned to me and smiled.  Then turned back to the teacher and took two bouncy steps in her direction.  I called her name.  She stopped and twirled around. I took a step toward her, but she put up her hand in a wave and said, “I got this, mama.” She smiled and disappeared.

I stood there amongst the leg holders, criers and huggers, and I felt a bit embarrassed.  I mean, I just got unceremoniously dismissed by a five-year-old.  I wondered if this was a serious problem. Should I have read more books on parenting. Was this evidence of a lack of bonding somehow?   Why was my child not clinging to my leg begging me to stay?  But then I got a grip on reality and I knew that all this uncertainty was about me. It wasn’t about her. I just wanted to be the best mom I could be.  The truth is that she was (and still is) a capable, confident, bold girl.  We prepared her for that moment by giving her the tools to be successful. We read to her. We talked about feelings. We helped her learn to solve problems.  We played.  When she needed us, we were there for her. So that moment was more about my grieving the loss of being needed just a little bit less, than it was about her. She was right when she said, “I got this.” She did.  She got it alright.

So here we are twelve years later.  On the first day of school, she won’t be covered head to toe in pink. I doubt she will be smiling ear to ear at 0630. She’ll drive herself to school.   There won’t be any hand holding. Even though I will worry that there is something I should have done or should have done differently or better, in my heart of hearts I know she’s got this.  In case there’s any doubt, I’m going to tell her just that, “You got this!” I might even throw in “Piece of cake!” In the end, she knows we will be right here if she needs us.

Kindergarten girl

I Got This
(1/50 sec., f/3,2, 9.2mm, 400 ISO Cybershot)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Elusive Zen of Gardening

I’ve had so many friends over the years who describe gardening as a zen-like experience.  I, myself, have had zen-like experiences but never while gardening. I don’t doubt my plant-loving friends. I find that zen feeling while cycling or painting or staring through my lens or doing yoga.  I want to love gardening. I want it to be a peaceful, rejuvenating activity.  And not because I lack those experiences, but because I love flowers.  I love big splashes of color emerging from the deep brown soil.  I love the blanket of greens that hold the blossoms aloft.  I love the diversity of blooms- the giant sunflowers plates; the elegant calla lily vases; the fragile tulips cups; the bold dahlia pompoms, the ruffled iris beards. They are all just so overwhelmingly beautiful. When I visit a garden someone has lovingly created, I can feel my pulse slow and my blood pressure drop.

But I am not a gardener.  The truth is that, even wearing gloves, I hate having dirt work its way under my nails and all over my skin.  Kneeling and leaning over a flower bed makes my back scream in pain.  Also, I look horrible in big floppy hats which, for some reason, I feel is required attire.  The upkeep -endless weeding and edging- is exhausting to think about. I mean, weeds just keep coming back no matter what you do.  Also, the bunny rabbit family I thought was so adorable in May has lost its appeal. I now see them as marauding, viscous plant predators. I’m not proud of that but there it is: I hate bunnies. The only thing I really like about the whole gardening experience is the end result- a lush expanse of velvet hues on a bed of emerald.

I’m not sure why, but I have felt bad about this, as if my gardening aversion is some sort of personal deficiency. I should want to pop out of bed on Saturday mornings, don my gloves and floppy hat, grab a spade and trowel, and set out across the dew-covered grass to remove weeds and humanely relocate slugs.  But when I really think about it, I see it is not a personal deficiency. It is a personal preference. I don’t like gardening. And that is not in conflict with my desire to have a garden.  I like music. Music gives me a zen-like experience.  I don’t make my own music. My inability to make music does not mean that I should not still have music in my home.   So, I am going to have my garden, unapologetically maintained by someone else.  I might select some plants. I might even put them in the ground. I am not going to weed the garden and I am not going to worry about it.  I will happily pay some hard-working individual to weed that garden.  I will enjoy the zen moments of sitting in my backyard surrounded by flowers without guilt. I wonder how many things we hold onto because we think we should be or do something that doesn’t really fit us. How many things could we let go of to more fully live our lives?

I selected the photograph, Overwrought, for this post because this reminds me how important weeding is. I found this stoop on a tour of Charleston, South Carolina. It was so lovely, a sea of green blanketing the front steps of this elegant old home.  And yet, it is also a bit insidious. The plant will just keep growing unchecked until it covers the whole house.  It’s a delicate balance.

Ivy covered steps of a Charleston home
Overwrought
(1/320 sec., f/10, 400 ISO, 135 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Two Sides of the Same Girl

When I was a little kid, I felt strangely like two different people.  In retrospect, I imagine that other children of divorce felt the same way. But it was the 70’s and divorce was rare in our Catholic community, so I didn’t have anyone to compare my experience with. You see my parents were diametrically opposed in their personalities and nature.  My mom was mercurial like a tornado touching down and disappearing unpredictably.  My dad was more like a granite wall- decisive, determined, disciplined.  My mom was a worrier, afraid of new things and fearful of future she talked about as if it had already happened. My dad believed in action. He never backed down. Nothing was too daunting for him to tackle.  My mom wanted help. My dad eschewed it.  As I grew and traveled between their homes, I became an awkward combination of daredevil and rule follower.  Like armor, I would take one suit off and don the other.  My mom’s tentative nature spurred me on to take risks.  She would catch me climbing the tree in front of the Rossellini’s house and she would gasp. So higher I would go. I’m sure in some small childish way, I wanted her to gasp and marvel in my fearlessness.  I think my dad liked my fearlessness.  I am sure he was trying to prepare me for the inevitable challenges of life.  But fearlessness was only tolerated within the rules. For him, I was a rule follower, diligently adhering to his expectations for grades, behavior, and performance.  And, in case you are wondering, I bent a few rules but only safe in the knowledge he would never know.

Those two parts of me converged one day on the snowy hills of Snoqualmie Pass with an object lesson I will never forget.  After a rocky start to ski lessons, I quickly embraced the rush of feeling the icy air pelt my cheeks; the way my tears froze crystalline in my lashes; the feel of my breath condensing in hot puffs beneath the raised neck of my sweater.  I craved the edge of speed and control – the bounce of my knees left and right, shifting the tail of my skis as I slid between the chaos of moguls.  For some reason, I felt anxious as I got on and off the chair lift. But once those were conquered, I was home free.  The world faded as I perched above the drop.  My stomach clenched, and my chest heaved with each frosty breath. I bent my knees, leaned over my poles and pushed off.  One hundred yards of rolling slope flew beneath me as the moguls approached loosely at first but tighter with each passing second.  I hit one late and new with absolute certainty that I would be eating the next one.  A thought, which ran through my head with disturbing regularity, hit me, “This one is gonna hurt.”  And down I went. Hard. I hit the next mogul shoulder then head.  The impact brought my legs keister over kettle and I tumbled until I ran out of momentum.  (My crashing skills are legendary.) I lay there on the hard, packed snow looking up as brightly colored skiers narrowly sped by me.  I did an internal inventory and thought I probably escaped uninjured.  I turned my head slightly and saw that my skis had not released. They were spanning the snow in an unnatural way. I remembered the ski instructor explaining that the binding release prevented you from having a broken leg.  My first thought was not “is my leg broken?” but “Mom is never going to let me ski ever again if I break my leg.” I knew I pushed the limited just a bit over the line this time. Clearly, I was on a slope beyond my ability (though apparently not beyond my delusions of my abilities).  Then the rules kicked in. I searched my brain to remember what I was supposed to do if I got hurt on the slopes.  All I could remember was “stay put and wait for ski patrol”.  So that is what I did.  I waited as the cold snow melted around my body seeping in the cracks between my boots and pants and my gloves and jacket. I waited patiently shivering until the nice men with a basket arrived.  I am not sure exactly how long I waited but it must have been quite a while. I know this because after the ski patrol guy unhooked my boots from my skis, he realized that the tip of the ski had frozen to my forehead. With a grimace on his face which foretold the pain I was about to receive, he explained that he was going to try to knock it loose from my forehead.  With one sharp smack of his gloved fist, he popped the ski tip off my forehead and with it came my skin.  With the pain on my forehead as contrast, I knew I was not injured but they insisted that I had to be checked. They wrapped me in a blanket and strapped me in the basket and we glided down the slopes.  In the end, my only injury was a cut forehead.  The ski patrol guys kindly explained that I didn’t have to follow the rules so strictly.  I could try to get up and see if I was still in skiing condition.  Then they gently recommended I drop down a level or two in difficulty on my next run.  Probably they didn’t want to break my spirit, but they also didn’t want me to break a leg.

I didn’t have a revolutionary change in personality as a result of the great forehead scar of 1975 (I have a list of scars spanning 50 years to prove that.) I did realize that I should question some rules or at least how I was applying the rules.  I learned that sometimes things seemed black and white to me because of how I was raised, when in fact, the world beyond my home was not just full of shades of grey but a whole rainbow of colors.  I realized I could still get a rush from doing daring stuff, but I should give some thought to the risks.  Though much later, I also realized that I am me. I may share some traits with my parents. But I am not my parents. Becoming one full and complete person means letting go of stories of what I think I have to be, and just being who I truly am.

I selected this photograph because it makes me think of my true nature – the me I truly am.  It was taken when I was around 18 months old.  I know when I am relaxed and at peace I can still feel that joyous, exuberant, loving spirit.

Just me

Just Me

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Stronger Than I Thought

It was a spring, Saturday morning in Georgia.  My father must have been away on business because, had he been home, I would never have realized my own true power.  It was just my stepmom and me.  Our blended family was new and more like a salad than soup. Still getting to know each other but so different in so many ways. The other kids were living with their respective other parents.  My stepmom was looking through the classifieds and came upon an advertisement for an Art Deco china hutch. It was listed for $100 which was not a small amount of money in 1979.  I had no idea what Art Deco was at the time, but I knew it must be a valuable style of furniture by her enthusiastic reaction.  She immediately picked up the phone and called the seller. Having confirmed that the hutch was in fact Art Deco, she grabbed her purse and keys and off we went to see it.  I held the well-worn map of metro Atlanta as we wound our way out of the city onto country roads.  We arrived at a typical two-story home where an elderly man was working in his garage. He greeted us, in the deferential way Southern men do, and led us to the basement.  He removed some lumber he had piled on the hutch for storage, revealing the rich, dark wood with curving, stacked corners.  Suspicious, she asked him why he was selling the hutch. He said that his wife was away visiting family and he had decided it was high-time to clean out the basement.   “That old thing” had just been collecting dust for decades.  I was all of 14 years old at the time and even I knew “That old thing” was a precious piece of history. My stepmom opened the drawers one by one. I couldn’t tell if she was considering its provenance or how mad his wife was going to be when she came home to find it gone.  With a look of resolve, she turned to him and said, “We’ll take it.” She had already written the check and handed it to him. Though he beamed, we knew that we were the real victors in this exchange. It was the next sentence out of his mouth that changed me forever.  He said, “Well, you bring the men folk back to pick it up and I will help them.”  Yes, he said “menfolk”.  I was about to take a step toward the car, when my stepmom stopped me cold with her response. She said, “Thanks, but we will take it now.  Cathy, get the other end.”  She said it in a tone that I had never heard her use before.  A tone that said, “Do it now and don’t ask questions.”  A tone that said, “Don’t you dare try to stop us.”  She walked up the stairs to open the backend of the station wagon, while I waited in uncomfortable silence with the man.  He was truly at a loss for words. He didn’t try to change her mind, but clearly, he was faced with a completely foreign experience.  He looked like he was trying to figure out if he should offer to help or run for cover.  I am quite sure “Yankee women, yeesh!”  ran through his mind a couple times. When she returned, she looked at me and said, “Lift”.  And so, we did.  We lifted that hutch and carried it up the stairs to the car.  It was so heavy, and the edges dug painfully into the palms of my hands, but I knew that I had to keep my mouth shut.  I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I knew somehow the three of us were changing in that moment in an enduring way.  He followed us up the stairs and looked a bit ashamed as we wrestle the beast into the car.  When all was said and done, she turned to him and smiled. She thanked him and shook his hand.  To his credit, he shook her hand. He looked a little stunned doing it, though.

I have learned a lot from my stepmom over the years. She is one of the strongest women I know.  On that day, I learned that the limits of my personal strength were so much greater than I had ever imagined.  I learned that sometimes people need an object lesson in their ignorance, but there is no reason to rub it in their face.  Actions speak louder than words and experience is the best teacher.   I learned that I might not be able to change other people’s long held beliefs, but I don’t have to be a victim to them either. I learned that people may try to set limits for me, but I don’t have to accept those limits.  I learned I was stronger than I thought.

This photograph, Walling Off the Past, was taken on my recent trip to Savannah, GA at the Colonial Park Cemetery. As construction of homes increased in Savannah, homes were built on graveyards. The headstones were moved to a wall surrounding the Colonial Park Cemetery.  This was my first trip to Savannah in 35 years.  I chose this photograph for this post because it symbolized to me that the world changes.  Sometimes we cling to the past and keep it right in the front of our minds.  Sometimes we move the past to a place where it is out of sight, but we know we are still carrying it around with us.

Colonial Cemetery Savannah GA
Walling Off the Past
(1/50 sec., f/8, 400 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just Beneath the Surface

I have been reminiscing a lot lately.  I am not sure if it is the passing of my father, my daughter’s impending senior year or just the end of the school year. Whatever it is, I find myself smiling – a lot.  I have such great memories.  Rebuilding our fire pit reminds me of all of camping trips with my dad.  I still love sitting by the fire talking with friends and family.  The count down to the end of school reminds me of all of the amazing kids I was blessed to have worked with.  Creating anything reminds me of watching my child grow up.  My love of photography, I attribute to my dad. But all other art belongs to my daughter. When she was little, she loved to draw and paint.  As I was painting the other day, I remembered our “Adventure Days” when we would wake up with no particular plan and do something spontaneous and special together. On the rainy winter days, we often found ourselves in The Ceramic Place (capitalized because that is actually the name) painting coffee mugs or Christmas ornaments.  The owner, Marilyn, is so patient and kind.  We would spend hours there.  Marilyn, having watched me try to paint Celtic knots with disappointing results, showed me how to carve them in the ceramic glaze. I would lay down thick layers of colors on a ceramic tile and wait for them to dry completely.  Then I would draw the design on the tile and begin slowly scraping away the layers to reveal the colors below.

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Even though I knew what it was going to look like when I was done, there was something magical about scratching away the rough, plain surface to expose the beauty beneath.  Under a magnifying glass, I would watch the thin needle as I scrape back and forth so carefully, drawing out each line. My eyes would cross, and my fingers ached.   I would blow the dust away when it built up in tiny drifts along the edges.  By the time I finished, my clothes would be covered in dust.  All those colors came through the depths to create the image.  Finally, it would be fired.  In that blazing heat, the flat colors turned to liquid.  What was nothing more than sand and dust became a rich glass.

That’s how life is really.  We can stay on the surface where it is plain and dull.  It takes no effort at all. You don’t get messy.  The only pain is boredom or loneliness.  But if you put some effort in; if you are willing to get a little messy; if you are willing to scratch beneath the surface- well that is where the beauty in life lies.  Beneath the surface.  And I have found that those parts of my life forged in a little fire are the most beautiful parts of all.

This piece took a very long time to carve.  It is a replica of the Gateway Guardian mascot which I carved for my best friend.  The picture on the left shows the tile prior to firing.  The picture on the right shows the tile after firing.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Change is hard but not changing is harder…

Sometimes things just happen, good and bad, that you just can’t predict. Despite my propensity for planning and my natural tendency toward being a hunter, I have learned that sometimes you have to roll with the punches and trust there is a lesson you need to learn. I didn’t always feel this way. No, this is a lesson I learned the hard way (my preferred method even as a young adult).  In the words of my favorite character, Captain Edmund Blackadder of Black Adder Goes Forth, “I, on the other hand, have a degree from the University of Life, a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks, and three gold stars from the Kindergarten of Getting the S*** Kicked Out of Me” (www.imdb.com/title/tt0758160/quotes ).

It was my second year of teaching.  As most new teachers are, I was very (very, very) enthusiastic. I think I would have volunteered to teach Latin had I been asked, even though the only Latin I knew was the classification of species.  Those kids may not have been able to conjugate vini, vidi, or vici but they would have known a cervus elaphus from an alces alces. It was my dream to be a science teacher and coach.  I worked really hard to prepare.  When I was student teaching, I was a volunteer coach.  Unless you have been a student teacher, you can’t appreciate the sacrifice of adding anything stressful to your life. But I wanted to coach so bad.  After a couple of years of being a volunteer coach and then an assistant coach, I finally got my first head coaching job.  I was hired in the fall to coach softball in the spring.  I spent the whole fall planning workouts and reading every book I could find on coaching, training, and leadership.  I remember it was a month before softball was to start because, even while hooked up to full body traction, I was trying to convince the surgeon I would be practice-ready in a month.

It was a Saturday and I decided to get up early and clean the house.  Stylishly dressed in old sweats and a t-shirt, hair in a ponytail, makeup free, I surveyed the kingdom.  We were newlyweds and lived in a small duplex in town that was built before building codes (possibly before electricity and indoor plumbing).  There was a small living room in the front of the house.  A very narrow hallway led to the back where there was a miniature kitchen and a slightly larger bedroom.  I started in the bedroom. The first thing I picked up were my husband’s Bunny Boots.  If you are not familiar with them, Bunny Boots are artic military footwear and they are heavy (apparently too heavy). As soon as I leaned over, I felt it. I sharp, shooting pain down both of my legs. I tried to straighten, but I couldn’t.  I flopped on the bed, like a salmon on a fish ladder, hoping I would flatten out.  The pain just increased and made me nauseous.  I fell to the floor on my stomach.  I don’t know why that seemed like a good idea because now I was wedged on the side of the bed staring at a mine field of dust bunnies that I knew I could do nothing about.  I couldn’t move my legs.  The only phone we owned was in the living room, of course.  I lay there for several minutes willing the pain to pass but it was clear I needed help.  I started to drag myself to the hall when my two large dogs, sensing something was amiss, lay down on either side of me and joined in the belly crawl to the living room.  I tried to get them to leave me, but they were grimly committed.  When I reached the living room, they took their posts, one on each side, and hunkered down.  There was no moving them.  Now, I tell you this not for sympathy, but to illustrate just the level of denial I was in at this point and for months after.  Here I was, lying on the floor (covered in dog, dog hair and dust bunnies), and I literally called my doctor and told him that I “threw my back out” and it was “probably just a muscle spasm” and could he “call in a muscle relaxer”.  I laid on that floor wishing the pain away, bargaining with God for my first coaching job and convincing myself it was nothing.  When my husband got home hours later, he was, fortunately, not in denial and called an aid car.  I had ruptured three discs in my back and they were crushing my spinal cord.  I was in the hospital for a long time, all the while hoping and praying that I wouldn’t have to have surgery.  I wasn’t out of the hospital a week before I sneezed and found myself paralyzed with pain again.  Surgery was imminent and unavoidable.  It was devastating and, at first, I just refused to give in.  I refused to hear.  When the surgeon told me that I was not going to hit another softball ever, I pushed back and said, “You mean this year, right?”  At first the challenge motivated me to heal fast and prove him wrong.  Then, I’m not proud to say, I got a bit self-pitiful.  I started thinking about it like it was the end of a dream I had invested so much in achieving.  Fortunately, one of my doctors challenged my thinking.  He pointed out that he said I would not coach softball.  He didn’t say I wouldn’t coach. He pointed out that I was a three-sport coach and he had no problem with me coaching volleyball or basketball.  He pushed me, unmercifully I felt at the time, to see that I could choose to see this as the end of my dreams at the age of 26 or I could see it as a detour in the road to my dreams.  I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, if I wanted to, but that would be my choice.  He pointed out, to my mortification, that there were people far worse off who accomplished far more than me.  He was right, painfully so.  When the fall came, I was at a new high school. I coached volleyball, basketball and track that year.  I had the time of my life teaching and coaching. Those students (now long grown up) will always be in my heart.  It was everything I thought it would be.  I nearly missed it. The next year, I coached only volleyball and track but not because of my back. It turns out that I was a terrible basketball coach, but that is a story for another day.

In the end, it was a lesson I have been reminded of often.  Change happens. Sometimes those changes are what we wanted. Sometimes those changes are the last thing we would ever want.  There is a lot in life that is beyond our control. Some argue all of life is beyond our control.  Even if you are a planner or a hunter like me, there will be times when you must accept and find a new path.  Grieve the loss, but don’t miss out on great stuff that happens between what we planned for and deeply wanted, and what actually happened.  Life is short.

 

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Coaching at Granite Falls High School circa 1992

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

 

Lighten Up!

I’ve always wished that I could be one of those women who goes through life with nothing more than their cell phone in their back pocket ensconced in one of those really cute Kate Spade cases with a sleeve for their drivers license and debit card. A quick swipe of mascara and lip gloss, hair flip and out the door. Nothing weighing you down. Secure in the fact that everything you need will be there when you need it. But I’m not that woman. I’m a planner, a list-maker, a sweat-the-details, an early bird (this is serious- if I’m late call the National Guard because something is seriously wrong). I was that kid in elementary school who launched the backpack controversy because mine was so overstuffed with markers and pencils and extra paper and my dad’s slide rule (yes- you read that right), I was in danger of tipping over. Of course had I tipped over, I would have been fine because I was dressed for the next ice age and therefore well padded. Suffice it to say, the Boy Scouts had nothing on me. I was prepared.

I still am. Last night as I was preparing to shoot Head of the Lake, I went through my camera bag. “Camera bag” does not do it justice by the way. It’s big and holds pretty much all of my gear. I could easily tip over. But I digress. I am going through my gear and taking out the things I know I don’t need to shoot this race. I don’t need my flash or my light meter. I definitely don’t need any lenses other than my 600 mm Tamron. I take all the lenses out. And then I think of this great shot I got off the Montake Bridge last year as all the boats were coming back through. The blue water speckled with shells and teams in every color flashing their oars proudly. It was spectacular. So I put my landscape lens back in. And then I thought, what if something happens to my 600? I must at least have a suitable back up! So I put my 200 back in. (Eye roll completely justified.) Then I remembered it was likely to rain all day and I would not be changing lenses in that. So I took them all out again.

Here’s the beauty of being my age. I’m a grown up. I carry my own load. I know I don’t want to miss a single moment of my life. So if I want to go through life with a 50 lb camera bag or a slide rule, it’s OK. But I’ve also realized that it’s time to lighten up. It’s time to focus on what matters. I’m taking my big beach chair so I can be comfortable sitting for the next 6 hours in the rain and possibly snow. I’m bringing one camera and one lens.  I’m going to focus on what is happening on the water. I can’t get much lighter than that.

I selected this as my “Lighten Up” picture because what are you going to do when a seaplane drives through the race course.  Just go with it I guess. And lighten up!
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Head of the Lake 2017
(1/500 sec., f/5.6, 2800ISO, 260mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.