Category Archives: Growth Mindset

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

How a trip to the eye doctor helped me see the world less clearly

After more than a year of constant virtual meetings, my eyes are shot—bloodshot. For fear I was doing permanent damage, I made an appointment with my ophthalmologist. As part of the exam, he placed some dye in my eyes and shined a bright light directly at them. Suddenly, I could see every blood vessel in my eye.  It was so shocking, I jerked my head and nearly knocked him over. He told me that those blood vessels are always visible but that our minds block them out. They would be a constant distraction otherwise.  It would be like looking at the world through a forest of branches.

What is more amazing, than blocking out all of those capillaries, is the fact that your mind fills in the black lines of the vessels to make the picture whole in our minds.

I know that we have an amazing capacity to block out sensory stimuli. It’s the reason I say things like, “When did they build that apartment complex?”, and my husband says things like “I just told you that!”  (If you don’t believe me, take this awareness test: https://youtu.be/Ahg6qcgoay4).

It makes evolutionary sense if you think about it. Can you imagine being constantly aware of every molecule of shifting air as it hits your body, every flash of light crossing your vision, and every soundwave bouncing off your eardrum? It would be overwhelming. It would be impossible to think of anything else. We filter out a tremendous amount of stimuli so that we can attend to other information. The new apartment building is much less important than the stoplight, pedestrians, and oncoming traffic.

But do we all pay attention to the same sensory information? I think not. We filter information through our lived experiences, cultural and familial expectations and norms, and religious or spiritual beliefs. Without thinking, information is taken in at rates determined not just by how well we see, smell, or hear, but whether or not we drank our coffee, had an argument with our partner, got to workout, had car trouble, gained or lost a pound, have a work deadline looming…. all the things that color our mood, and interfere with or focus our attention. And yet, if I asked you to describe the world, you could. You would describe the world as you know it. Because you experience it firsthand through your senses, you see it as real and true.

According to Stephen Burnett, “Every organism inhabits a world that is the sum total of all the information being received and processed by that organism’s nervous system.”1 For example, the giraffe and  the rock python inhabit the same area, but they live worlds apart. Like every other organism, we live in different worlds because we perceive the world differently. The world of humans is even more vast when technology is present because it can bring the entire world to us.  For the rabbits in my backyard, the world is about an acre of land where they must brave the King (my husband who loves his lawn) and his two four-legged, sharped-toothed beasts (my puppies who want to play with them) just to feed their families. Our oasis is their gauntlet. For humans, we not only experience the space we physically live in, but we experience the whole world filtered both through our interests and choices and through the filter of what others think we should see, feel, and pay attention to.

Part of the challenge of being human is that we believe our experiences. We trust what we see and our interpretation of it. We don’t notice the branches obscuring our view or that our mind has elegantly filled in the missing information with what aligns with our expectations and prior experience. 

That makes it very hard to understand each other sometimes. When you describe a world so different from my experience, I might think that you must be wrong. For if you are not wrong, then how can I be right. After all, I have my experience as proof that I am right.

Is this duality the truth of the world or the myth of it? Can some things be both right and wrong? Is the world really black or white? If it is good for me, does that negate that it is bad for you? A weed to me, might be a flower to you. One person sees a guerilla, another person sees a freedom fighter.

Whether we are talking about our families, local communities, or the world, honoring the different and valid ways we experience the world is critical. How can we better understand each other? How can we truly see the different worlds we inhabit together? How can we let someone else’s experience fill in those blind spots in our eyes, especially when it would be far easier to let your mind fill them in with only your world view?

Listen with compassion and a desire to understand rather than convince.

See with new eyes and question your perspective.

Smell the flowers, even if you think they are weeds.

Feel what it must be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

Break bread together (or kitfo, souvlaki, kimchi, goi cuon, biryani….) and learn the history of the dishes.

Open your eyes and relax your focus. You might be surprised what becomes clear.

1 (Burnett, S. (2011) Perceptual Worlds and Sensory Ecology. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):75, https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/perceptual-worlds-and-sensory-ecology-22141730/).

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

How a Box of Rocks Made Me Smarter—and Calmer

When we were at the beach, I noticed a stack of rocks on an old log. I have seen towers like these before, but I never really thought about them beyond noticing the inexplicably calming sense that I get from staring at them.  I find rock formations, natural or manmade, relaxing. I must not be the only one because, on the road out of Dingle, there was an Irish farmer who was charging to photograph the cairns on his property. I happily paid and I was not the only one.

In the space I had at the ocean over break, without the tether of my cell phones, laptop, or iPad, it occurred me that there must be something deeper than casual boredom turned art happening here. Clearly stacking rocks is an echo of some vestigial gene we are carrying around, like the one that makes an appendix. It is the gene that spurned Stonehenge, Easter Island, and the Inukshuk.  It goes beyond the pedestrian pursuits of creating buildings or carving historical monuments. It is much more visceral than that.

Though out of character for me, I decided to forego the research phase this time. OK, the truth is that I started the research phase and learned many reasons why you should not stack rocks in nature. Google it before you create your next granite tower. Though the biologist in me had a pang or two of guilt, I was still too curious to stop. Instead, I turned inward and did a little self-excavation. I got some rocks from my front yard and I created a rock sculpture garden on my desk.  For a week, I have been alternately toppling over and restacking rocks. While I still have no clue what draws me to do it, I am learning so much from the act.

My Stone Stress Seismograph 

There are different levels of stress. The more stress I have, the more desensitized I get to it. As a result, I accept a baseline of stress as normal. I may even see this baseline as not being stressed at all. Five towers of precariously stacked rocks next to my keyboard act like a mood seismograph. I cannot pretend when the evidence is toppling over in front of my eyes. When I get stressed and intense, I pound my keyboard and crash around my desk. There is a point at which the hammering knocks the stones over. Instead of letting that cause more stress, I am leaning into it. In the last week, I have learned to take a breath and figure out what I am feeling in the moment. What is causing me to pound the keyboard. The more awareness I bring to my feelings, the more sensitive I become to small shifts in my stone seismograph.

Wisdom of Intuition

Stacking rocks takes a completely blank mind. It is an act of intuition. I really can think of nothing else in that moment. There is a place of balance for each stone. If I am thinking about an upcoming meeting, I will not be able to sense where that spot of perfect balance is. I cannot reason the stone into place. I cannot calculate the stone into place. I must feel the stones. In the absence of the running dialog and strategic thinking, the placement of the stones is clear.

More Than One Path

When a tower topples, I have the inclination to remember exactly how it was and how I did it the last time.  As if that were not only the perfect way but the right way. Routines, though tedious, are also efficient and effective strategies for many things. However, in rock stacking, recreating is pointless. Accepting that the new formation will be satisfying allows for the possibility that it will be much more than that.

Persistence Point

There is always a way to stack a stone and being frustrated makes it much harder to find the way. I have found that the more frustrated I get with trying to “get it exactly right” prevents me from reaching that wordless place where my actions are guided by intuition and sensation rather than judgment and expectation, perceived or actual. In that place of silence, new ways to stack the stones appear that meet the goal.

Creativity Jumpstart

A state of wordlessness makes a space for creativity.  I cannot write when my head is filled with noise. Reaching that wordless place where my attention is focused on finding the sweet spot on a misshapen stone opens a door to a place filled with connections, new ideas, and beautiful words.

So, it turns out a box of rocks made me smarter and calmer this week. Give it a try. Stack some rocks. Rake some sand. Meditate. Do yoga. Stare at a sunrise. You might learn something about yourself.

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

You can learn a lot from pancakes.

Last week, one of my former students asked on Facebook, “What is your signature dish?”  I was tempted to write Take Out.  It would be funny if it weren’t true. I am going to admit something very vulnerable here. These are my pancakes:

This morning, I stood pondering why my husband’s pancakes are always fluffy and round with perfectly distributed blueberries, my daughter’s pancakes are golden brown and artistically sprinkled with fruit, and mine look like they are preschool art project. I consoled myself with the reminder that I can make wine, bread, cheese, popovers, and pizza. Enormous, delicious popovers, I mean, what else do you really need?! OK, OK, vegetables and fruit, but those could be eaten raw.  Slicing vegetables isn’t really cooking. It’s dangerous, but hardly qualifies as cooking.

I used to cook. Then I became a science teacher and a three-sport coach. Then I went to graduate school at night. Then I became a principal, and I supervised a lot of evening sporting events and dances and concerts and plays. Over time, my husband started to cook. It turned out that my husband is an amazing cook, which is lucky because he could have starved being married to me. Most of the time, I don’t even think he uses a recipe or, if he does, he tweaks it to be just right. He has a gift.  Our daughter does too, largely because she grew up watching and helping him cook. She loves to try new recipes and create her own. Her Instagram is filled with pictures so enticing you can almost smell and taste the dishes. 

She learned literally nothing from me in this department. I remember, when she was elementary school, she asked her dad to make her a toasted cheese sandwich. It was one of the times that I was home for dinner. I was offended. So, I said, “You know, I can cook you dinner too. Dad is not the only one who can make a toasted cheese sandwich.”  Our daughter is a very compassionate individual. So, against her better judgment, she apologized and asked me to make her a sandwich. Mortifyingly long story short, I burned it. To be clear, the bread was charred and the cheese only mildly warm. Though she offered to scrape the ashes off and eat it, in the end we both asked her dad to make her a new one.

Dutch Oven Bread

So, my amoeba-shaped pancakes this morning were not unexpected. I had eschewed my husband’s offer of blueberries and sour cream. I stuck to the basics, water, pancake mix and vanilla. I got the consistency right, but that was the easy part. I never flip them at the right time. Mid-way through the flip, I lose that smooth arc of the spatula when I realize that they are going to land half on the griddle and half on the stove. Jerking it toward me, the batter slides off the uncooked side, instantly scorching across the surface. Today was no different. They were misshapen and varying in density and color. But I was hungry and calculated the probability of a better outcome with a second attempt to be about 1 in 10,000, so I threw caution to the wind, added butter and syrup, and ate my Franken-Pancakes. They tasted great. Great might be an overstatement. They tasted fine.

As I watched the butter melt on the rough edges of the uneven slopes, I thought, there must be a life lesson in this that I have yet to learn or the great Power of the Universe would not make me endure such ugly pancakes year after year after year.  This is what I learned today:

Guinness Soaked Cheddar

It doesn’t really matter what my pancakes look like. They tasted fine and filled my tummy. Sure, I wouldn’t call it my signature dish, or subject you to it, but looks aren’t everything. Sometimes, I am too hard on myself in this department. (How many of you have a Pinterest fail story of a birthday cake or inspirational wall hanging?) Aesthetics are great, but substance matters. The world is a wonderful, messy place.

Ugly pancakes are not evidence of my failure as a woman or mother. (Can I get an Amen!?) Pancakes do not make the woman, I say. I have a lot of other important skills (see wine et al above).  I can dazzle you with data. I wrote a novel. I’ve got skills. Variations in skills do not make you a failure, period. We all have different gifts, and they have nothing to do with gender or any other demographic characteristic.

Never pass up a great pancake for one that is merely fine.  I love my family. We are unconventional in many ways. We have always done what works for the three of us. We are not constrained by what dad should do, what mom should do, and what daughter should do. We do what works. We keep the rules to a minimum, show gratitude, and act from love. We all have our gifts and our shortcomings. Combined, our home is a messy, wonderful place.

Petit Verdot and Sangiovese

Always put the sour cream in the batter. I know my pancake making skills are weak. So does my husband. I should have taken his advice. His are fluffy because of the sour cream. Mine are not because I am stubborn. He said, “You should put sour cream in the batter.” I heard, “Your pancakes are dense.” Both are right, of course. My pancakes are dense, and they need sour cream. It is also true that I am resistant when I interpret someone’s helpfulness as criticism. He was being helpful. I suffered from my pride by having to gnaw through my pancakes.

I wonder what I will learn from lunch?

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.

Give It a Try

About 20 years ago, my sister called me and asked if her daughter could job shadow me to fulfill a graduation requirement.  Hopefully, I hid my surprise.  After all, I was a high school principal.  I could not imagine that any high school student, ever, in the history of mankind, dreamed of being the principal.  I certainly hadn’t dreamed of being a high school principal, and I was one.  Being a principal never crossed my mind, in fact, until my husband remarked one day, “You should be a principal.”  To which I quickly replied, “Are you kidding me?! No one wants to be the principal.”  Did he even know me?  Apparently, he did. You can imagine my angst when I had to admit he was right, and tell him I was going to graduate school.

As to my niece, I said, ‘Yes, of course, you can shadow me”.  I thought it would be fun to have her job shadow me. I knew it would be fun to spend the day with her. When the day finally came, she spent the night at our house and went to school early in the morning with me. That alone should have warned her off the job.  It was about a 20-mile drive, and we chatted along the way. I remember nonchalantly saying, “So, you want to be a principal.”  If she did indeed want to be a high school principal, I didn’t want to discourage her with my incredulous tone.  She remarked, in the way only a teenager can, “Yeah, that, or a dental hygienist.  I haven’t decided.”  I chuckled to myself thinking that neither sounded like much fun, if you were 17 years old, in my opinion.  Then I thought, those two professions couldn’t be more different. Oh, to be a teenager.  A time when everything is a very real possibility. The sky’s the limit.   A time when you have shed the childish dreams of wanting to be a superhero or professional athlete or ballerina for the more likely, albeit disparate, options: principal or dental hygienist.

She spent the whole day with me.  I can’t recall all that happened, but I imagine it was a day in the life of a high school principal: visiting classrooms, talking to students, dealing with some thrilling operational issue (translated: someone is in my parking spot!), meeting with parents, doing paperwork, dealing with discipline, going to meetings, changing the world one kid at a time. Riveting stuff for a 17-year-old.  Of course, she was seeing high school, for the first time, from my perspective, not that of a student.  At the end of the day as we drove home, I asked her, “OK. So, what’s the verdict? Are you going to be a high school principal?”  She did not miss a beat, “Oh, heck no.” She laughed, not derisively, but more like ‘you must be crazy’. Hopefully I hid my disappointment. I asked, “So, you are going to be a dental hygienist then?”  She thought about it a moment and then replied, “I don’t know. But your job is really hard.” (Update: She didn’t end up being either, but is gainfully employed in a career she is very good at.) She was right.  Being a high school principal is the hardest job I have ever had. I didn’t mind the challenge though, because I loved the job.  I loved almost everything about it, even the hard stuff. (Maybe not staying up until 1 am on prom night, but that’s more about my internal clock than anything else.)  It was purely luck, though, that I loved it. If you think about it, I jumped into graduate school, with a considerable price tag, based on a belief that I would be a good principal and I would like being a principal.

College is expensive.  Though I think it is money well-spent, all post-secondary training is expensive.  While I don’t think you have to know for sure what you want to do with your life at 18 years old.  I think you owe it to yourself (and anyone who is helping pay your tuition) to explore what different careers entail.   More and more, kids are doing internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing before they start their post-secondary training. Frankly, I feel blessed that my child is in a school district that is committed to connecting students with internships. My daughter is in her 4th internship experience in physical therapy and sports medicine.  She has never been more excited about her learning. Even though she has had some wonderful classes with engaging teachers, her internship experiences of hands on, deep learning have been the most transformational learning experiences she has had. I am so grateful to the adults who have made this possible and mentored her. The physical therapists, softball coach and counselor, who made these possible, have quite literally changed her life.  Listening to her talk, fast and loud and animated, about some amazing experience she had that day is so wonderful.  Listening to her fluently use the language of the profession she hopes to have some day makes my heart sing.  More important than the learning itself is learning that she does, in fact, have the aptitude and passion to pursue this career. It is about learning what you will actually do in that profession on a daily basis and, knowing that you not only can do it, but you want to do it. When she started, she thought she only wanted only to work with athletes. I think her experience, with so many different kinds of physical therapy patients, and her realization of how rewarding it is to help someone heal and grow, has expanded her world.

It seems that sometimes in life we just jump in because of how we imagine something is going to be without really doing any research or exploration.  We have an idea of what we want to do and we commit.  Sometimes we find success. Sometime we abandon the idea altogether.  Where college and careers are concerned, I think it is an expensive proposition to jump in without exploring both your personal characteristics and the characteristics of the job.  There are so many medical careers, for example, if you like science. If you are not a people person, however, you might want to steer away from nursing into, say, pathology. I have said it before and I will say it again.  This process is not about finding a career you can fit yourself into. It is about finding a career that fits you.  No matter how much you love animals, if you are afraid of swimming, being a marine biologist might not be for you. Trying out a career through a job shadowing experience or an internship is as much about learning what you need in a job, as it is about learning what the job will require from you. Finding out something is not ‘your thing’ is not a failure. It is information. Important information that can lead you to a happy, fulfilling life.  The fact is that our lives contract or expand in relation to the beliefs we have about what we can and should do. We should give ourselves permission to try something out, regardless of our age, our past experience, or our image of who we are right now. We should be open to the possibility that it will be ‘our thing’.  We should not condemn ourselves when we abandon something that just isn’t ‘our thing’.  I know there is the perfect career for everyone.  We just have to give it a try.  What do you have to lose really?

 

lhsp

Me circa 2003, doing some riveting principal-ing.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Worth the Fight 

Our daughter was a fighter from the first breath, maybe even before the first one.  I swear she tried to kick her way into this world.  She was willful and wily, and it was wonderful.    There was a time, even before she could walk, when I could see her flex her tiny muscles as if to hunker down on an idea she could not yet express. I didn’t think that a sprinkling of stubbornness and determination was at all a bad thing.  Since she certainly inherited two dominant genes for stubborn determination, there wasn’t much point in trying to fight nature.  I decided to focus on nurture instead.  I wanted to nurture courage, conviction and compassion in equal measure.   Like much of parenting, I felt a lot like I did in freshman chemistry when I was mixing compounds drop by drop hoping to change the solution to a lovely, bright purple color, and get an A, without catching the lab on fire.  It was a fine line between strength and sass.

Our first indication that she was not going to need assertiveness training came on the day of a family outing to the local fishing and hunting emporium. We walked three astride into the store, her tiny hands grasping ours as she skipped, pony-tail bobbing, across the threshold. We were not 20 feet into the store when she put the brakes on. Mouth agape, she eyed the trophies that lined the walls.

“Look at all the pretty animals…. Hey! Hold on. They’re dead! Who killed those animals!”

She started out with her ‘indoor’ voice but it escalated quickly to ‘drill sergeant’ before ending at ‘riot control’.  She caught the attention of a large herd of hairy, flannelled men no doubt on their way to pick up ammo.  That was about the time my husband dropped her hand, smiled at me and said, “Good luck. I’ll be in fishing.”

Fortunately, her melt down occurred near the camping section, so we sat around the cardboard campfire to have a little chat. Despite the cozy glow of the 100-watt lightbulb shining through the crinkled orange and yellow tissue paper, she could not be swayed. I explained. She listened. She explained. I listened.  In the end, she conceded that it was OK to hunt but only if you lived in Alaska, didn’t have a grocery store, and promised not to put the head on a wall.  She had a very narrow set of rules for hunting.  You can probably guess where I went wrong here.  I was debating the merits of hunting with a four-year-old.  She was a thinker.

It was only a couple of years later when I found her in the basement painting a blue and green earth on a large sheet of cardboard her unsuspecting (and apparently uninquisitive) father gave her.  Polar bears and their dwindling habitat had been the topic of reading group that day.  She was inspired to do her part to save the planet. She had a three-part plan: 1. Paint an enormous sign emblazoned with “Save the Earth”; 2. March up and down our street shouting “Save the Earth”; 3. Ask people for money to save the earth when they stopped to talk to her.  My husband was worried that this was a sure sign she was destined to leave us to join the Sea Shepherd Society as soon as she had the bus fare.  I was worried she was going to be kidnapped.

Fortunately, she was painting in the basement by the fire place, so we sat down and had a little chat.  I explained. She listened. She explained, emphatically.  I listened.  In the end, she conceded that asking strangers on the street for money was unsafe.  I conceded that she could march back and forth on the front lawn, under my watchful eye, shouting “Save the Earth” until a neighbor complained, and then she would have to come in and have dinner.  Since we lived on a cul-de-sac and there was little traffic, she got bored quickly. No one called to complain. Dinner was on time.

My hope for her is to grow up strong enough to stand up for what she believes in; courageous enough to use her voice not just for herself but for the greater good; and compassionate enough to understand that not everyone feels they have a voice or that they can use their voice.  Though she did not save the polar bears, she continues to stand up and speak up for what she believes in.  That is harder than you would think. Oh sure, there were tears of sadness shed over the polar bears and tears of anger shed over the hunting trophies. Those tears were nothing compared to the pain a young adult feels when faced with something that seems so wrong or unjust that it’s unfathomable anyone else could see it any other way.  She had her first taste of that after Parkland. As she marched with thousands of other people against gun violence, it might have been easy to forget that, if everyone agreed on the subject, marching would be unnecessary. That fact wasn’t lost on her. I felt for her. I remember being a high school student in the late 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. I couldn’t believe a debate was even needed.  I couldn’t believe we needed a constitutional amendment at all.  We were living in Georgia, so my outrage was the minority (and very unpopular) voice. So last night, I sat across from her at dinner, and she shared her outrage and frustration on behalf of a group of students she cares deeply about.  My heart hurt for her, but I knew this was not the time for me to fix things or take over. This was her fight. If she was ever going to have the courage to fight again, she had to get through the frustration and anger on her own. One of the most painful lessons in life is finding out that you can be right and still not be able to change what is happening.  The challenge is to know what is worth fighting for and then get right back up and keep on fighting. After all, glaciers carve out mountains.

This photograph was taken on a trip to Padilla Bay.  From her expression, I can say with some authority that she was saying “No!” at the time.  I picked it because it reminds me of her willfulness and strength.

Worthy Fight

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Fear Brain and Reigniting the Curious Mind

We don’t give much thought to our brain. I don’t anyway. I take it for granted most of the time.  If you think about it, that 3 pounds of fat, protein and water (according to National Geographic ) is a truly miraculous organ. It spawned the Sistene Chapel, the International Space Station, the Gamma Knife, War and Peace, Swan Lake, Bethoven’s Fifth, the Hadron Collider and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The list is wondrously endless. I even read recently that some of the brains at Batelle Labs developed an implant that made it possible for a paralyzed person to pick up a spoon merely by thinking it.

Of course, those are rare and exceptional examples of the brain’s potential when provided with an environment conducive to learning, creating, and innovating. Not every brain lives in those types of environments, and the brain is ultimately a survival organ. Centuries of real and imagined danger have honed its ability to recognize and respond to novel stimuli and threats. If you think about early settlers in the Americas for example, it makes perfect sense.  A frontiersman, let’s call him Bob, mesmerized by purple mountain majesties, who couldn’t spot the grizzly racing down the slopes early enough to take defensive measures, probably ended up as the bear’s picnic lunch. While the bear was finishing Bob off, his more fear-alert neighbor was running off with his girlfriend to the nearest Justice of the Peace and subsequently consummating the union to pass on his fear alerting genes to the next generation.  Mission critical to the brain is the preservation of the body and much of that happens subconsciously.  You only have to touch a hot stove once. You don’t have to walk around saying, “Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t touch hot stoves.”

While encountering bears is an unlikely threat nowadays (although my first high school lockdown was due to a bear wandering around behind the gym- more about that later), the truth is that children do encounter threats to their safety and it is easy to misinterpret a child’s behavior because we are unaware that an unconscious threat response is happening. I know.  I have, regrettably, made that mistake more than once in my career.  A couple of decades ago, when we were blissfully ignorant of the sheer magnitude of homeless children, I made that mistake and it has stayed with me as a painful reminder that I cannot know what motivates another person’s behavior.  He was new and that alone made him standout.  I knew how hard that was having moved around as a child, so I tried to connect with him.  He always seemed to be looking over my left shoulder like that was as far as he could stand to make eye contact with me. I was suspicious.  My dad always told me that looking someone in the eye was a sign of honesty and respect.  So that was my lens.  It didn’t occur to me that there could be another reason.  His answers were monosyllabic and curt.  He fidgeted like he was itching to get away from me.  He kept bouncing his backpack on his shoulder as we talked- not rapidly but periodically like he was checking to see if it was still there. After a few minutes, I gave up trying to talk to him.  He stomped away without a word.  He was disheveled and dirty.  It made me wonder if he didn’t care. Again, my lens came through, my dad always told me that you should dress nicely because it looks like you care about yourself and, if you care, others will. “If you dress like a bum, people will treat you like one,” he’d say.   It didn’t occur to me that the condition of his clothes wasn’t his choice.  I met him again, under even less jubilant conditions, a couple of days later when he was brought to my office for verbally attacking his teacher.  When I was working on my Master’s degree, one of my professors, a wise and experienced administrator, once told me that every behavior has a positive intention even if I can’t see it.  It was hard seeing the positive intention in his actions that day. It took some time, but eventually he meted out the information. It was like he was testing our trustworthiness with every morsel. The teacher had told him he had to leave his backpack in his locker. It was a common rule back then. That seemed reasonable to me, again through my lens.  He had valuable things in his backpack.  We have locks for the lockers, I told him. He didn’t trust the locks. That seemed silly but I didn’t say that outright.  And then we got to the real issue.  Everything he owned in the world was in that backpack.  My lens shattered. I let that sink in. He was homeless.  I think he was the first kid who had ever said that to me. Everything he owned was in his backpack.  Chaos and uncertainty ruled his life.  What was he going to do, explain to the teacher, in front of the other kids, that he was homeless?  I could not imagine the burden of that for a young man.  Of course he was angry, who wouldn’t be?  Of course he attacked, he believed he was in danger of losing everything.    In the end, we figured out a way for him to feel safe about his backpack. He taught me indelibly to ask first.

So, what does this have to do with the brain?  Everything, it turns out.  Whether we flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger (real or imagined), the brain takes over to protect the body.  In the classroom, students may appear that they can’t learn or won’t learn when in fact they may be reacting subconsciously to perceived threats or to stimuli that reminds the brain of a past threat. Every child starts out curious. Every child wants to learn. They soak up the sights and sounds and taste and feel of a world that is new to them.  They want to know how and why. Why is the sky pink tonight and not blue? Where does rain come from?  How do fish breathe?  Where do babies come from? Or my child’s personal favorite, what’s that smell like (usually asked at the most inopportune moments)?  If you are a child, who merely by luck is born into a family with educated parents with financial resources, you will probably hear things like “what a great question”, “let’s look that up” or “I’ve always wondered that too”.  You might even hear an actual answer to the question.  You go to school confident that you ask good questions worthy of adult consideration. You learn that adults think you are smart enough to find or understand the answer. But what if you are born to parents who are not educated or who don’t have financial resources?  What If you are homeless and survival is the most important thing?  You might hear “enough with the questions”, “I have no idea” or “don’t bother me right now”.  Exhausted people in survival mode are not always able to regulate their emotions.  You internalize your parent’s emotions.  You make those emotions mean something about you.  You might feel like you have irritated, angered or offended your parent.  You learn not to ask questions. You learn questions upset adults. You learn questions are dangerous.

These two children will look very different in the classroom. One will look engaged, ask questions, make eye contact and offer answers. The other will appear disinterested, not ask questions or offer answers. It is easy to mistake their learned response for not caring about school or for being less intelligent when, in fact, that is not true. This is why trauma informed practices and social emotional learning are so important in school.  If we want all children to learn, we have to understand their behavior.  We have to help them develop the social emotional skills needed to both keep them safe and help them learn, like growth mindset, grit, social awareness, self-management, and sense of belonging. We have to reignite their curious mind.  None of that will happen overnight.  It takes consistent, intentional behavior by influential, caring adults.  It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. It happens in classrooms everyday across this country.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we believe they can learn.  Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we think their questions are valid and worth our time.  Through our actions, we can reignite the curious mind. Through our actions, we can quiet the fear brain and make room for the learning brain to grow.  If you are wondering just how to do that, ask yourself “What would I say right now if I were talking to my child?”

If you want to learn more about:

Social Emotional Learning
– Check out Panorama Ed’s work: https://blog.panoramaed.com/
– Check out the Committee for Children’work:  https://www.cfchildren.org/

The Fear Brain – Read The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/   Mobbs, D et al, 2015)

How class and race influence the classroom – Read: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Lareau, 2011) https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271425/unequal-childhoods

Trauma Informed Practices
– Check our Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/trauma-informed-practices-benefit-all-students
– Read: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success  http://www.k12.wa.us/CompassionateSchools/HeartofLearning.aspx

I chose these pictures because they remind me of the curious mind of the child. This was my daughter’s 5th grade Invention Convention project. She designed and made a cover to keep tennis shoes laces clean, dry and knotted.  I think she is brilliant. The greater truth is that, by the luck of the draw, she was born into a home where education is important, her parents have the time and resources to help her, and every time she asked a question (millions of questions actually – just ask her third grade teachers who had to give her a daily limit) she was encouraged to find the answer.  All of that helped her develop a curious mind. Every kid deserves that opportunity.

Invention Convention 2

Invention Convention 3

Invention Convention 1

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The House That Built Me

I was staring out the dusty screen door of our canary-yellow, cookie-cutter rambler when I first realized he had superpowers.  My bangs glanced off the cheap metal door as I followed his deliberate movements back and forth across the patio.  My mother hooked me around the waist, dragging me back as she slammed the glass slider closed, “Come away from there. Don’t you know that stuff will kill you?”  But I was rapt and would not budge.  He looked like a different man in his white t-shirt, faded jeans, and boots.  I wondered if this was the real him – the real person beneath the Brooks Brothers suit, bow tie and shiny wingtips.

The canoe, or what was going to become a canoe, was resting on two sawhorses he fashioned out of spare two by fours.  That was him. He wouldn’t buy it, if he could make it.  A mask covered most of his face. I could tell it irritated his twice broken nose by the way he harshly brushed it with his forearm. With gloved hands, he carefully lifted a fiberglass sheet over the shell smoothing it down gently. It sparkled white in the sunlight like tinsel on a Christmas tree.  He inspected each piece bending down to sight the line of the hull along the fat ribs before starting the process again.  He was making a boat. I guess I knew someone made boats.  I didn’t know you could make your own boat.  It occurred to me that maybe not just anyone could make a boat. That this was his superpower. He made things from nothing. He would stop periodically and survey the scene like a king, chest swelled with pride.  Watching him, I learned there must be something deeply satisfying about rowing a boat you made with your own hands.  In so doing, you earned the pleasure of it all. And somehow, building that boat built him.

But it wasn’t just that boat. He would get an idea to do something, the harder the better, and the next thing you knew he’d buy a book or find some expert to talk to.  My dad had a gift for getting people, no matter how shy or reluctant, to spill all their knowledge and, sometimes, even a few secrets.  From our next-door neighbor, an odd man who wore a button down and dress pants even in his garden, he learned to grow hybrid roses with buttery blooms of swirling yellow and pink that made me think of lollipops.  He built bunk beds and bookcases. He carved clawed feet for the chairs he made and personally stood by as a plank of mahogany was planed into sheets that would fit our whole family for Thanksgiving.

Throughout my childhood, I watched him build. He always started the same way- with a book.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized I had inherited his thrill for a challenging task and his sense of pride in doing something for myself.  When I was in high school, we moved back to Washington from Georgia.  Rather than buy a house, my dad decided to design and build the house himself. With a rudimentary understanding of the process, he bought some machetes and we set out to hack a path to make way for the backhoe.  Even when he seemed frustrated that he could not get something to work, he persevered.  The harder the problem, the harder he worked to solve it.  Although there are still some light switches that turn nothing on, he rejoiced when he finished wiring the house.  I rejoiced right along with him. At the time, I felt like I was rejoicing that we were finished wiring and were one step closer to finishing the house. But I can tell now that I was rejoicing because we conquered wiring. We didn’t give up and call an electrician. We stuck in there until the last wire was connected and everything turned on.  It felt so good to accomplish something that was really hard. I know that building that house built me in many ways.  There is nothing that motivates me more than a complex problem. Give me a book, Google or an expert and I will conquer that hill.  The steeper the better.

I felt that same exhilaration and sense of accomplishment last week working on a difficult project with my team.  We were recreating a complicated data display in a new software platform.  After several days of learning, and learning from our mistakes, we did it.  I felt like doing the touchdown dance right there in the conference room. The easy things in life do not build you.  Taking on the challenges in life, even seeking them out, that is what builds you.

I selected this picture of my dad for this post.  It was taken in October of 1964 when he was working as lineman to put himself through college.  It reminds me of how hard he worked to achieve his dreams. Based on the date of the picture, he was married with a child, going to college and working as a lineman.  He never took the easy way. Once he set his mind to something, there was never a hill he could not climb.

385a David Shea Lineman

A note about the title of this post, The House That Built Me is the title of a Miranda Lambert song that always resonated with me.

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.

DSC_3023-1logo
Sailing Away
(1/200 sec., f/20, 105 mm, 100 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Growing Pains (There’s a reason why they’re not called Growing Joys.)

I was listening to a series of lectures by Pema Chödrön the other day. She is a Buddhist nun and teacher who I find very insightful and inspirational.  In her lecture, she said something to the effect that we should never underestimate the human drive to avoid discomfort.  I was taken aback by the sheer obviousness of the comment. After all, why would anyone choose pain over joy? Why would anyone choose to be anxious if they could choose to be calm?  Why would anyone willingly welcome loss, failure, or grief?  I nearly missed her point as I mentally argued my point with her. Her point was that only through experiencing discomfort can we actually grow or learn.  Discomfort has something to teach us. Though we have a million ways to avoid and distract ourselves from discomfort, we are never really eliminating it. We are merely putting it off. In some cases, we are even compounding the problem. For example, when people use drugs, alcohol or food to numb their pain, they are just putting the pain on pause. It will be there when they wake up. I am not advocating that we live a life of suffering sleeping on a bed of nails denying ourselves joy. I do think, however, that we need to be able to stay with discomfort and be open to what it can teach us. More importantly, we need to help our children to develop the ability to be with their pain or sadness as an inescapable yet transitory part of life. We can be compassionate toward their feelings without robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to experience these emotions.  I think this is what my dad intended when he would say, “It builds character”. “It” was always something unpleasant that I was sad or disappointed or angry about. Though at the time I always replied (mentally), “I have enough character already! How much do I need?!?!”, the truth is that there was always a lesson in the pain. No matter what that lesson is, I always grow from it and it is usually accompanied by a realization that I am stronger than I thought was.

When I was 21, I bought my first pickup truck.  I had been walking to school for two years. I did not mind the snowy hike up to the University of Alaska really. But more and more, my labs were in the evenings.  Though it was dark during the day as well, the darkness at night made me uncomfortable and not because of human predators.  After a few weeks of searching, I found a 1984 Dodge Ram pickup. It was a 4-wheel drive, half ton with a 225 slant six. I got it for a steal from a man who decided that getting up at 2 AM in 40 below weather to warm up the engine was not really worth the sheer beauty of Fairbanks, Alaska. My then boyfriend (now husband) had a tight group of friends from his hometown.  When I got my truck, they informed me that I had to take it four wheeling with them. It was sold as some sort of rite of passage but truthfully, I think it was more likely a form of hazing (someday I will tell you about the Ptarmigan Call which I totally fell for). Regardless, I am not the type of person who backs down from a challenge – even when a smarter person would. Needless to say, I accepted and quickly found myself in a line of 4 X 4’s heading out past Murphy Dome.  My husband rode with me all the way to the top.  It was nerve-racking.  I did not want anything to happen to my new truck.  The beast was so much longer that the Scout ahead of me or the Landcruiser behind me which made it much less agile.  Add to that the fact that I am 5’5” tall, so on the uphill grade I had to grip the steering wheel and lean in to see past the five feet of hood in front of me.  Most of the road was dirt and gravel but several places were washed out leaving only enough surface for two tires.  Slipping off meant backing downhill to get back on top of the tracks.  We went slow, low and steady for a couple of hours.  The trip was mostly silent. It is not that I had nothing to say but my jaw was locked too tight to talk.  My neck and shoulders were killing me by the time we got to the top.  The momentary pride I felt when the guys congratulated me for making it was dashed when I realized I had to drive back down.  Even though I felt like I was admitting defeat somehow, I turned to my husband and asked him to drive it down.  I was turning toward the cab when he said, “Oh no. It’s your truck. You have to drive it down.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I was on the verge of tears which just made me mad. I mean here I was with these guys who were never going to let me forget it if I cried.  But I was beat. I honestly wasn’t sure I could get back down.  Sometimes you don’t know how strong you are until you have to be strong – or until you are really pissed off. And I was.  I looked at my husband and told him to find a ride off the mountain. Then I started the engine and got in line.  Half way down, we hit the double track.  I was all the way at the bottom when someone started honking behind me.  One of the guys in a Landcruiser had slipped off and was high-centered.  My husband hiked back to me. He explained that I was going to have to back up the hill and pull him on to the track.  He looked at me and said, “You can do this. I’ll stay behind you. Go slow and watch me.” The way he said it made me believe he thought I was strong and capable (and possible was not just being a jerk earlier). I put it in reverse and inched back up the hill watching him direct me in my rearview mirror.  I pulled the Landcruiser out and we made our way home. The guys gave me credit.  It didn’t stop them from throwing the gauntlet down when they could, but I think they respected me for sticking it out.

On that trip, I didn’t have time to think about anything but what was actually happening moment to moment.  I didn’t have time to analyze what was said. I didn’t have time to agonize over how I came to be in that position. I didn’t have time to play out all the possible outcomes in my head. I didn’t have time to make up some story about the event which would only cause me greater discomfort.  There was no way to avoid the discomfort of the moment except to just be with it.  Just like everything else in life, it passed. Just like every experience I have – good and bad- I learned from it.  I learned I was stronger than I thought. I learned my husband already knew that.

This is a picture of the Beast from one of our many adventures. Man, I loved that truck!

the beast.jpg

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.

Everybody Needs A Walk -up Song

One of the great things about having a teenager is that I feel like I am cool-adjacent which is almost as good as being cool at my age. (I’m suspicious of 50-year-olds who are too cool.)   I have learned all kinds of things that I would be hopelessly ignorant of without her – like the correct meaning and usage of LOL and IKR, or what Snapchat is, or why anyone cares what the Kardashians had for lunch.  My husband and I lose cool points daily by sounding out those acronyms: lawl and icker. We think its hilarious.  She is not amused.  Fortunately for her, I definitely don’t want to Snapchat.  Texting is great.  No one can see you when you text.  Snapchat would even further increase the amount of time I feel it is necessary to wear makeup and do my hair.  However, there is a downside to texting.  I make a lot of mistakes texting because my fingers are too big for the screen and the letters are too small for my eyes. (Luckily, I have kind friends who, thus far, have not turned my daily errors into internet sensations.)  So, I will bask in the glory of being cool… adjacent.My most recent discovery was the walk-up song.  I have watched my share of sports, so I was aware that certain heart-pounding, chest-swelling, opponent-intimidating music is played as teams and players take the court or enter the ring.  What I did not know is that kids have walk up songs now.  I have to say that I think this is brilliant.  Frankly, I want one!  I love music.  I always have.  Maybe everyone is like this or maybe its just me.  But I feel like there is a soundtrack that marks out the times of my life.  I remember people, places and stories so vividly when certain songs come on.  When I hear Rodeo by Garth Brooks I think of my sister’s wedding day. My youngest sister and I drove all over Lake City looking for a Diet Coke howling with laughter when people stopped to stare at our elaborate bride’s maid dresses.  Peace washes over me when Country Roads by John Denver comes on and I am transported back in time to camping trips with my dad.  John Cougar Mellencamp’s Jack and Diane reminds me of hot summer nights and the taste of freedom you get when you are a senior and your best friend has questionable judgment. Bumping around dirt roads in the endless daylight of an Alaskan night comes back to me when Bruce Hornsby croons out The Way It is.  Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now brings my mom back gently dancing around the living room.  I can feel my baby rocking on my chest whenever the lilt of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl spills from the speakers.  I won’t go into “anything by Van Halen” but, suffice it to say, it still puts a smile on my face.Music makes great memories.  A soundtrack is a special thing.  But a walk-up song would be so cool. Not cool-adjacent but actually cool.  Like today when I literally slayed suppression rules in Tableau (Trust me, in the data-nerd world, that is homerun, TKO, rock star stuff right there.) Thunder should have been playing! Test scores come in? We Are the Champions should be playing as I head to the podium.  The perfect photograph? Touch the Sky. Maybe it is the “pride cometh before the fall” ethic we have or maybe it is just a fear of appearing arrogant (or foolish) that keeps us from celebrating our successes and hard work.  But we should be celebrating the amazing things we do with the same passion that a teenage softball player does when she hears her walk up song playing on the way to home plate.  Perhaps a walk-up song at a board meeting would be inappropriate – ok definitely inappropriate – but one should be playing in my head none the less.  Rest assured it will be and I will be taking time to celebrate my successes too.I chose this photograph because I was so excited when I took it and about 20 more.  I was waiting for racing to start in San Diego when this Pelican came in for a landing, splashed around a bit and then took off.  It was like he was putting on a show for all the people waiting on shore. Walk up song?  Freebird comes to mind.PelicanFreebird
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 600 mm.)

 

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.

 

 

If you believe you are a Labrador Retriever….

I was having coffee with some friends recently when, inevitably, the subject of our dogs came up.  Three of us have medium to large dogs and one has a smaller, hypoallergenic one (which is brilliant since I think EVERYONE needs a dog).  I mentioned that I grew up with Basset Hounds, but that these have been ruled out since my husband has a strict rule about only having dogs who can jump into the truck on their own accord. The Mastiff owner shared that he knew a guy once who had a Basset Hound – Black Lab mix (visions of the Island of Dr. Moreau popped into my head).  The dog apparently had the body style of a Basset and the head and coloring of a Lab.   Despite his ground-skimming physique, he could jump into a truck.  To which I remarked, “Well, I guess he didn’t know he was a Basset Hound.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that a dog’s self-perception is not really limited by the stories in his (or her) head in the way that people’s self-perceptions are.  Puppies don’t have self-limiting beliefs.  A puppy doesn’t react in the present to some story his mom told him about how he’s never really been good at playing fetch and probably he should learn how to howl.   Dogs are all basically instinct and direct experience.  Take Stumpy, for example (I just named him that because BH-BL seemed too impersonal for such a courageous heart).  Maybe Stumpy watched his mom, a leggy Lab with a shiny Black coat, leap gracefully into her owner’s truck every morning.  Not realizing he inherited his dad’s stocky build, he just followed her one day. (And yes, I do understand the biological unlikelihood of this scenario but stay with me, I have a point.)  Maybe he didn’t reach the cab the first day. But he kept trying because, after all, he’s a Lab. Labs ride around in trucks and go duck hunting.  Imagine what would have happened to poor Stumpy if someone told him that his dad was a low riding Basset Hound better suited to rooting out bears in the bramble than gracefully retrieving the carcass of a Mallard.  Dogs operate on instinct. They don’t stop trying because things are hard. They do what comes naturally. When unsuccessful, they work around it.  Take Sadie and Strauss, for example. Sadie was a lithe Grey Hound – Lab mix. She was lightning fast and loved the water.  Strauss was a Border Collie – Springer Spaniel mix. She loved to round things up.  When we would play catch by the river, Sadie would always beat Strauss to the stick. Strauss really had no chance of catching her. But she wanted that stick. Eventually she realized that if she met Sadie at the edge of the water as she was bringing back the stick, she could herd her until Sadie was so confused and tired that Strauss could steal the stick right out of her mouth and bring it to us.  Strauss didn’t give up playing catch.  It was fun! (Who doesn’t want to hear “Good girl! Bring it here!”  a hundred times or more?) Strauss didn’t try to out run Sadie. She figured out her gift and applied it until she got the job done.  Trust me, Sadie would run herself ragged, but she couldn’t escape Strauss’ herding skills.

I recognize we are not dogs. Humans have more complicated lives and we do more complex things than other animals do. But there is something to be said for taking a cue from our four-legged friends.  What if we all believed that we could get better at something, master it even, just by learning from our mistakes and trying again?  What if we didn’t have a story about the past that limited our experience in the present?  What if we saw our failures as learning and not as personal deficits?  What if we believed we could change the outcome merely through increasing our effort and applying our talents?  What if we acknowledged and acted upon the possibility that we might have talents we have not yet discovered?

I remember when my daughter was learning to walk.  It went really fast and I am not sure what her ultimate goal was, but she always had the most determined look on her face.  Just like all other children, she started by standing on her wobbly legs leaning against the couch. She fell. A lot. In fact, she fell so often that we finally just started calling it FDGB (Fall Down Go Boom) to save time. But she did not stop trying. Once she mastered standing and leaning, she tried standing alone. When she mastered that, she took her first step. Every new thing she tried, she fell down.  After every success she had, she tried something harder and failed immediately.  But she didn’t stop.  She cried, dusted herself off, got a hug and off she went.  I didn’t say to her after the second fall or even the tenth one, “It’s OK.  I don’t think walking is for you.  You’re probably just not good at walking. Let’s go back to crawling.”  It sounds absurd doesn’t it?  I said, “You’re fine. You’ll get.  Try again. I am right here.”  I reassured her that she might not be able to walk yet. Sometimes we forget that last part – yet.  Take math for example, has anyone ever said to you, “It’s OK. You’re probably just not good at math.” Or did they tell you, “You’ll get it. It’s hard now but keep trying. You just haven’t learned this yet.”

 

We are all different. We all have different gifts.  I am not suggesting everything is within our grasp. For example, I am 5’ 4” and stocky. Genetically, I lean toward people who hauled in fish nets or thatched roofs.  No amount of effort or will would turn me into a figure skater or a gymnast (trust me, I know physics).  But that did not keep me from enjoying a lifetime of sports more aligned to my physique. What I am suggesting is that we examine the stories we tell ourselves, and more importantly, the stories we tell our children through our actions and words, to make sure that we are sending the right messages:

I believe that I can get better at something, master it even, just by learning from my mistakes and trying again.

I will not listen to the stories about the past that limit my experience in the present.

I see my failures as learning and not as a personal deficit.

I believe I can change the outcome merely through increasing my effort and applying my talents.

I know I have talents I have not yet discovered.

Do you? Will you?

 

DocFile (2)

DocFile (1)

Learning to Walk

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

There’s Something About Sticking with It

I am going to preface this post with “No children were harmed in the making of the story” (well not permanently anyway).  If you were a child of the 1970s or before, you will appreciate this story. If you are a Gen Xer or a Millennial, there is a chance you might be horrified- at least mildly.  This story starts in the time before. The time before bicycle helmets and elbow pads. The time before car seats with 5-point harnesses held children securely until they age of 11.  The time before seatbelts, safety glasses, and earplugs.  This is a story that starts in the time when children went out to play unhampered by schedules and unmonitored by parents.  It was a time when you never admitted that you were having an argument over kickball because your parents would say “Work it out or you can all just come in the house, take a bath, and get ready for bed”.  Now let me be clear, it wasn’t Nirvana by any stretch of the imagination. It was just a different time.  And I was nine.

I wanted so badly to learn to ski.  My dad, being very supportive of anything outdoorsy and adventurous, signed me up. He took me to the Jaycee Ski School orientation.  He bought me a starter set of used ski boots, poles, and skis.  He outfitted me in warm, waterproof clothes.  And then he dropped me off at crack of dawn at Aurora Village where the ski bus picked up all of the Olympic hopefuls who were raring to tackle the bunny slope.

I was so excited! I literally vibrated with anticipation as I sweltered in the seat of the Greyhound Bus.  I was sweltering, by the way, because I loved my parka and ski pants so much I refused to take them off. We approached Snoqualmie Pass and I was on high alert. Unfortunately, I had never been there before, so my high alert was completely ineffective.

I got off at the wrong stop. I went to the wrong ski school.  By the time I found the right ski school, I had missed my lesson.  I was completely deflated and near tears.  I drug my skis to the lodge- quite dramatically I am sure because I swear there was a dirge playing in the background.  I found a pay phone (Gen Xers and Millennials- I didn’t have a cell phone! They were invented yet.) and I called my dad collect (ask your grandma or grandpa what calling collect was).  I tearfully told my dad what happened.  I just knew he would jump in his car and come get me.  I was never, ever going to brave the cold, wet snow of the ski slopes again. I contemplated less risky activities like piano lessons or Blue Birds. My dad’s response came as quite a shock.

“Do you still have your skis?”

I sniffed a weak “yes”.

He then asked, “Do you still have your ski pass?”

By now, I knew.  I knew he was not rushing through the house putting on his coat, searching for his keys.

He said, “You should go skiing.”

I could not believe it! I must admit at that moment I said words in my head that I was not allowed to say out loud. Colorful words. Expressive words. I was so mad. At that moment, I just said “Fine”, which was short for ‘Fine, you jerk, I can’t believe you are not going to come save me, so I will go skiing, so there, I’ll show you!’

And I went skiing. It was awesome. I loved every second and I was back the next week.  I never missed another lesson.

At the time, I was so angry at him.  But I am a parent now, so I know it would have been a lot easier for him to just save me. I know now just how hard it is to watch your child struggle.  But in so doing, he was telling me that he knew I could do it. He gave me a great gift.  He gave me the chance to show myself that I would not fold at the first obstacle.  He gave me the gift of persistence.  I had not had a ski lesson. I had no idea what I was doing. But I watched everyone else and I hoofed it over to the tow rope on the bunny slope and I tried until I got it right. I fell and got up- over and over.  It was skill that has made it possible for me to do the really hard things in my life without giving up. It was a skill that has allowed me to face difficult times without folding.

It is a different time now. But persistence is still a skill every person needs to learn.  Children need to learn that they might have to try something more than once to get it.  They might have to ask for help or find a book or take a class.  They need to learn that failure is not terminal and the reward for persistence is great.  It is not just achieving whatever you set out to achieve but it is also learning to trust and believe in yourself. It is learning that with a little effort, you can improve or learn or conquer.  Success always feels so much better after you have had to get back up, dust yourself off and try again.  Honestly, I am not that proud of anything that came easily to me.  But I remember when I struggled and how sweet it was to finally get it.

If you have been reading my blog, you know I have been on a quest to photograph the elk herd outside of Concrete and to catch the eagles over the Skagit.  Four trips.  Four 4 am alarms. Four long drives. Four standing out in the cold watching the sunrise.  Four just missing them. I am making it sound horrible, but I loved every single one of these trips because I learned something every time. I learned about shooting at dawn. I learned about the importance of monitoring the dew point.  I learned about vantage points and lighting and perspective.  In the end, I was successful.  The struggle was sweet.  They are my pictures of persistence.

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Taking Off
(1/500 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 500 mm)

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Indecision
(1/60 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.