Category Archives: Life Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

We adapt…. but should we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

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

282 Miles – Zero Distance

Rocco worn out from fetch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2021 Catherine Matthews

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

It’s Never About The Furniture

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


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

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


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


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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Boxers, Banjos and Bravery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Rejection = Redirection

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

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

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

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

Be in the moment.

Christine J. Noble

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

Confidence without arrogance.

Faith with humility.

It is a fine line.

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

Rejection = redirection

Beth Weg

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

Just keep working the problem.

James Shipman

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

What is your dream?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

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

Letting Clouds Get in the Way

I got up Monday and went for a ride, as I do every weekday morning. The skies were clear. I couldn’t see them, because it was too dark, but I could see stars for miles. I knew the sun would come up on a beautiful day. At the end of the ride, that is exactly what happened. I sat in my backyard watching the sunrise with my two Boxers and a cup of coffee.  It was a glorious Pacific Northwest summer morning.

If you read my blog, you know I never pass up a chance to drive with the top down on my Jeep.  After getting ready, I pulled Radar out of the garage and immediately knew something was wrong. In the time it took me to take a shower and get dressed, the skies had become covered by a cloud bank that was low and stretched out as far as I could see.  There I sat in the driveway trying to decide if I should stop right then, take my heels off, climb up on the bumper in my dress, and put the top on.

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere
Looked at clouds that way

-Joni Mitchell

That took about five seconds. I put it in gear and headed for work, sans top. As I drove along, I convinced myself, with little evidence and even less training in meteorology, that it wasn’t going to rain. The stratus clouds, though dense, probably had little vertical development (I had one meteorology class in college). More importantly, I knew a 10% chance of rain meant a 100% chance of rain over 10% of the geography or a 100% chance of rain over 10% of the geography or….  so really what was the chance of rain at all? So what if it did rain? I had a hairdryer at work. I could safely drive a little faster and avoid a few raindrops. It would be totally worth it to get in one more day of driving with the top down.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone

So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

-Joni Mitchell

That is when I realized that, when I really want something, I don’t let clouds get in my way. Those clouds are just water vapor passing through the atmosphere, temporarily obscuring the sun and a blue sky that are always there. When I don’t want to do something, those clouds are like a concrete wall too high to climb over, permanent and unyielding. I have a choice in how I see those clouds. When I feel that resistance to the clouds, it is showing me something I need to see.

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”

-Jim Rohn

I have had a few concrete clouds lately. After 31 years in a profession, everything has been turned on its head. The goals are the same but just about everything else has changed in some way. Some days, it feels like those clouds are completely socked in and so thick that no amount of sun and wind will break them up. And then I realize that I am the one who is keeping them in place. My resistance keeps them tethered over my head. I can choose to see them as impending rain or I can choose to see them as temporary. I know that when I want something, I find a way. I drive with the top down when I know it could rain. I innovate. I learn. I lift and lean.  I know that when I choose to see those clouds as temporary, I can imagine the sunshine and blue sky coming through. I remember that the blue sky is always there, waiting for the clouds to pass.

The second thing I realized is that sometimes I am the clouds. I am the one getting in my way. I am the one getting in someone else’s way. More than ever, I have to realize this and check myself. When I feel stressed and resistant, am I causing a cloud that is obscuring the blue skies for someone else? I can be the one to help someone find a way to learn a new way of doing things. I can be the one who says, it will be okay. We can drive with the top down and, even if it rains, we will be okay. The sun will come out. The blue skies will appear. In the meantime, we are okay even if it rains. 

Cloud Bank on Icicle Creek Canyon (1/500 sec., f/4.8, 120 mm, 220 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

The Truth – In Comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

What every kid needs to learn before you give them tuition or luggage.

My daughter went back to college a couple weeks ago after being home for the winter break.  I thought that she would be about 24 years old before I would have this feeling that is exploding from my heart. I can’t really put my finger on it exactly. Satisfaction? No, not big enough.  Vindication? No, too dramatic.  Elation? Yes, that is it. I am elated.  Not that she left. Rather, I am elated that, after just one quarter of college, we have definitive proof that we accomplished some big things we set out to do as parents. Before I go on, I will admit that I made plenty of mistakes as a parent. It is impossible not to make mistakes. Parenting is the most complex undertaking in life, I believe.  Also, I should share, there are many things about our daughter that we are proud of other than the ones in this post. The things I am going to share are things that I think every young adult should learn before getting luggage or tuition, and being sent out into the world.

Ultimately, our goal was for our daughter to leave our house at 18, able to navigate the adult world secure in the knowledge that she had the skills to be successful and independent.  I believe that people do not learn how to be an adult when they are 18. They begin learning as soon as they try out their first “NO!”  As with any skill, adulthood has to be scaffolded with a gradual exchange of responsibility and a commensurate increase in freedom.   For example, one of our goals was for her to be able to travel alone safely as an adult.  When she was little, she traveled with me by airplane.  I helped her pack, understand boarding passes, handle bags, get through security, and navigate the plane. Then, she traveled by plane with a friend, and parents waiting at each terminal.  She experienced being alone on the plane and having to get her needs met. Next, she traveled with her team by airplane, and I traveled on another plane (because I am smart).  She was able to do most of what she needed to do, but her safety net (coach) was right there. She traveled to the opposite corner of the country with a friend on a plane, navigating major airports. She did everything on her own. Last thanksgiving, she even booked her own flight. Gradual exchange of responsibility from me to her. She had chances to make mistakes, with a safety net. Though that safety net was about the same through all of this, she used it less and less. And when there were problems, we started by asking what she could do to solve the problem.  As a result, she learned that she could trust herself to solve problems and advocate for herself. Children need opportunities to try, and even fail, if they are to learn.

These are not in age or priority order. They are all equally important to us.

Banking and Money:  We opened a bank account for her quite young. She went to the bank with us to deposit her money. While we provided for her needs, we reminded her that she had her own money if she wanted to buy something that we did not want to buy for her. I remember the day we were shopping when she admitted, “I like it enough if you are buying it, but not if I am.” We laughed. No one bought that sweater. Our gauge became: Would you buy this, if you had to pay for it? As soon as she was old enough, she got her a debit card. Keeping track of it and her money became her responsibility. Our accounts were linked, and I got alerts on her spending. I never intervened unless I thought there was a possibility of fraud.   As soon as she was old enough, she got a small credit card to establish credit. She learned what it means to have a bill you must pay.

Work:  There are things you can only learn working for someone other than your parent.  She babysat in middle school, and got her first job in high school.  Her first couple of jobs had big challenges.  She learned that money is earned. She learned how hard and how long you have to work to save up money. She learned about being on time, and having a positive attitude even when you really don’t want to do something. She also learned that if you don’t like your job, you can go get another one, but it is always best to leave on good terms.  From unpaid internships, she learned that sometimes you can earn something other than money that pays off big dividends on your future.

Rights:  She probably would not agree, but one job in particular taught her a painful but necessary lesson.  She has rights. Though an employee, she has the power to advocate for herself and protect herself.  We taught her about Labor and Industries, and employee rights. We showed her how to research the law and file a complaint. This was one I had not really planned for because I never had to assert my employment rights, fortunately. I could see that she felt she could not stand up to her boss for fear she would be fired even though she was in the right.  Though I helped her navigate the process, she filed her complaint on her own. It was a powerful lesson for us all.

Self-Advocacy and Negotiation: These are skills best learned young.  Believe me, the first time she shouted “No” at me, I was not thinking this.  But we quickly realized that, if she learned she must mindlessly submit to anyone in authority or power, we would be diminishing her power as a human and putting her potentially in danger.  We wanted her to trust her gut and set boundaries for the treatment she would accept from others. I heard too many stories from teens who were assaulted because they did not feel they had the power to say “stop” or “no”.  We also wanted her to have the confidence to state her case to get her needs met or to address an injustice.  Let your child talk to their teacher when there is a problem.  Coach them about who to talk to when they need help. Stepping in feels supportive as a parent. To a teen, it can communicate that you do not believe that they can solve their problem on their own.

Self-Management: This is a hard one as a parent because it is so hard to see your child unhappy. But it is important. Children need to have some freedom to make choices that could have positive or negative consequences.  Then they have to experience living with the consequences, good and bad. Take homework for example, she was allowed to manage when and where she did it until she began missing assignments. Then we set a time and place. We also set expectations around how she could get that freedom back.  We never had to talk about homework again. She apparently did not enjoy studying with me at the kitchen table as much as I enjoyed spending the time with her.

Cell Phones: They are a fact of life. The sooner kids learn to use one appropriately, the better. We bought her a cell phone when she entered middle school so that we could be in touch with her in an emergency. We made it very clear that we owned the phone and could revoke it if she violated the rules.  We talked about safety rules. Though we never felt the need to do it, we were clear that we would read her texts if a problem occurred, or we felt she was in danger.  She loved her phone.  We only had to take it away one time.

Social Media:   I was a high school principal so I knew all too well the devastating mistakes developing and impulsive minds could make.  I was initially very much against allowing her to have any social media. But then I realized that she was eventually going to have it. Since to that point I knew nothing about it, she could have set up social media and I might not even have known she did.  We all needed to learn about online safety. She needed to practice using social media with supervision to prevent bigger mistakes later. There were only a few issues but they were great opportunities to talk about how easily things can go wrong on social media.

Grocery Shopping:  This seems a bit silly because kids usually go to the store with a parent at some point. There is a big difference between tagging along, dropping protein bars in the basket when your dad isn’t looking, and actually planning for a week of healthy eating.  We sent her periodically to the store with a budget and a list to do the family shopping.  As a college student, she understands how much cheaper it is to buy food at the store and cook it at home, than to go out for dinner.  She understands how to select fruits and vegetables, check expiration dates, and read labels.  For the record, her dad gets all the credit for this one.

Cooking:  We started this one pretty late because she was an athlete who was often home late.  It did not make sense to have her cook after school and practice. In her senior year, she took an interest in nutrition and learned to cook. You are at the mercy of cafeterias and restaurants in the dorms. But when you move out, you might be eating a lot of soup and frozen dinners, if you don’t know how to cook.  Again, her dad gets all the credit here. I do know how to cook, but he is much better at it!

Laundry:  Need I say more?

Doctor and Dentist Appointments: This grew from necessity, but turned out to be a great skill.  I could not manage her schedule and mine. Eventually in exasperation, I told her to call her doctor and make the appointment. We gave her an insurance card and explained how insurance works.  Ultimately, she was comfortable going to appointments alone and advocating for herself.

I remember when she was in high school and she said to me, “I am adulting all over the place.” I thought it was cute. I mean, it’s not like she had to worry about a mortgage. I realized over this winter break, that she was adulting all over the place. Every day, she is adulting more and more. She is right on schedule. When she moves into her apartment next year, I won’t have to worry about whether or not she will be able to feel herself, pay rent, or keep herself safe. I also know that she understands that she can always ask for help or advice. Even adults need a safety net.

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Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

Take the Day Off, America!

IMG_0922 (1)According to a US Travel Association Study released in August, Americans left 768 million (Yes, million!) vacation days on the table last year.  They found that 55% of Americans did not use all of their vacation days last year (https://www.ustravel.org/press/study-record-768-million-us-vacation-days-went-unused-18-opportunity-cost-billions).  That is mind boggling. I am not proud of this fact, but I have to admit that I am among those who did not use all my vacation days last year. In fact, I think the only years that I did were the years that I needed them to work on my doctorate. Don’t get me wrong, I take time off.  Since my daughter came along, we planned a lot of my vacation time around her schedule- her breaks from school and her sporting events. But even if I add in family vacation time, I still don’t take all that I am afforded. When I am on vacation, I still sneak a peak at email or bring that report I need to read or write. Apparently, I am not alone.

Sadly, this epiphany led me to more research, which should not be a surprise to anyone who reads my blog regularly.  Now, I am really concerned, particularly in light of the research on the impact of taking or not taking vacation, as the case may be.  Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, in her Psychology Today article You Really Do Need a Vacation, lays out some compelling reasons to take vacation (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/lifetime-connections/201807/you-really-do-need-vacation):

  • Women who go six or more years without vacation increase the likelihood of developing heart disease by a factor of 8.  It is even worse for men whose chance of a heart attack is increased by a factor of 32 when they fail to take a yearly vacation.
  • Vacation, if you can leave your work behind, reduces stress. Though temporary, this leads to better reaction times and increased ability to be present to what is happening. Less stress means less stress-related illnesses and injuries as well.
  • Vacation has a tremendous impact on overall productivity.  A mere 10 hours of vacation leads to an increase of 8% in job productivity.
  • Vacation increases employee loyalty, job satisfaction and creativity.  So, taking vacation benefits your employer as well.

By the way, I should say that as I write this, I am having the best vacation ever.  Am I in Hawaii? If you know me at all, you know that would be a no. Iceland?  More likely, but no. My daughter is home from college. My husband is home recuperating from his second knee replacement. We are on week two of family and friends time, and Adventure Days. My daughter picked a tour of the best coffee shops for writing in Seattle as the theme for our Adventure Days. We have toured cafes in Fremont, Wallingford, Ballard, Green Lake, and Capitol Hill in search of inspiration. We have worked on our blogs and had endless conversation. We have had family game nights and movie nights. I started a new batch of Cabernet Sauvignon. It has been awesome! I have not done any work. I should say that I love my work. Anyone, who has heard me speak about my work, knows that I am ridiculously enthusiastic about educational data and research.  My brain is a very active place. Where challenges are concerned, I am a hunter by nature. It is not easy to turn that off. But I know that  Dr. Degges-White is correct about vacation. I feel so energized.  I can feel the batteries recharging that will power the rest of this year.

This is the first time I remember, since I started working at 14, that my boss explicitly said turn off your phone, put an out of office on your email, and be with your family.  Probably most bosses I have had meant that, or assumed I would do that, but none have said it explicitly.  That made me wonder if I have been explicit with my team.  I sure will be in the future. What do you say, America!? Isn’t it time you took a couple days off? You owe it to yourself and your employer to be healthier and more productive. Taking your vacation might just be the best way to do that.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

 

When Dreams are the Real Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

To every thing there is a season,  

and a time to every purpose under the heaven. 

Ecclesiastes 3:1 

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

 

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there,

wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams

no mortal ever dared to dream before. 

Edgar Alen Poe  The Raven 

 

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

 

Dad 1966

Holding onto my dad in 1966.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

The Appreciation Equation (You might want to sit down. Turns out, it’s exponential.)

Thursday night I got the game ball. It felt so great!  In my dubious athletic career, I never got the game ball.  I have thrown a game ball. I have caught a game ball- once, in the back of the head.  I have dribbled a game ball, shot a game ball, even caught a game ball (once, right in the nose).  As a coach, I have even given the game ball. I have never been given the game ball, until last Thursday night.  I was given it in appreciation of my work which is about as far from athletic as you can get: data analysis, assessment and research.  I felt truly honored to be recognized for my work. Of course, the first thing I did was send a picture of the ball to my husband and daughter who are my biggest cheerleaders.

gameball

My sly cell phone pic of the game ball for my family.

They were so excited for me.  Then I remembered the 14 letters my daughter gave me for my birthday! I remembered that one was entitled “Open when you are a data badass”.  If there was ever a good reason to open that letter, this was it. I could not wait to get home to read it.  Well, I can tell you that I was definitely feeling that letter. Here is what it said (used with permission of the author):

“So, I don’t know when you’ll be reading this, but I can almost guarantee that I’ve already called you and asked you how to use Excel or had some number-y struggle at school.  Not only are you a data badass at work but it turns out you’re a data badass at my university too:). It has always made me laugh and smile the way you get so excited about data at your work.  I hope whatever you did today to be a data badass made you excited, and even made the Superintendent tell you that you’re a Rockstar!  Give me a call and tell me about your data badass-ness today!”

My first thought was “I think my kid might be psychic.”  Then, I just took a moment to soaked that letter  up.  It made me feel very special. She knows I love my work. Clearly, she shares my joy when I come bouncing home with some great story about analyzing data. I have about the nerdiest job that there is, and she gets just as excited as I do, not because she cares about data, because she knows and cares about me. She appreciates me- especially when I help with her “number-y struggles”.

Train your people so well that they could work anywhere.

Treat your people so well that they won’t want to.

-Branson

I started to wonder why appreciation or gratitude can evoke such powerful emotions.  Of course, that led to research. This will not be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  I came upon The Science of Gratitude by Summer Allen (University of California Berkley, May 2018). I learned that I am not the only person wondering how gratitude benefits people, and why both giving and receiving it feels so great.  There is now a field of gratitude research which, though in its infancy, gave Dr. Allen fodder for 72 compelling pages on the subject.  (I should note that there is some debate on the relationship between appreciation and gratitude in the research. I am lumping them together as more research is needed.) In addition to citing studies of improved health outcomes for people who practice gratitude, I was struck by research that suggested “practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit (Summers, p. 17).”  Gratitude begets altruism.  Think about that. Expressing gratitude makes you feel better in and of itself, and it makes you feel even better when you do something that benefits someone else. It is like an avalanche of gratitude.  It’s an exponential equation. I express gratitude. I feel great. I do something nice for someone else as a result. I feel even better, and the person I help feels appreciated. So, they feel gratitude. If they do something nice for someone else, they will feel great! It will be completely out of control. People will be grateful for other people with no expectation of reward, and yet, they will feel rewarded.

Have an attitude of gratitude.

-Hinckley

What if we intentionally practiced gratitude?  What if we intentionally taught our children to practice gratitude?  Practicing the skill of identifying the people and things we are grateful for, and then acting on that gratitude, has lasting positive physical and emotional effects individually and collectively.  I am sure of it. The research backs it up.

I propose an experiment that I am going to call Passing the Game Ball. I would like you to join me in it and then share your experience by leaving a comment.

  1. For one week, make a list every day of at least 5 things you are grateful for.
  2. Each day, express your gratitude directly to one person you come in contact with. Look them in the eye, give them a smile, and say it loud and proud: “You deserve the game ball! Thanks for…..” (Or write a personal note if that is more your style.)
  3. See if expressing gratitude for someone else feels just as great as receiving gratitude.
  4. See if expressing gratitude makes you want to do it more.

I bet we could start an avalanche! I’ll start. I am so grateful for all of the people who read my blog and take the time to share their experiences and perspectives. You have enriched my life.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

 

Copyright

The pointless pain of wanting it to be different.

 Suffering usually comes from wanting 

things to be different than the way they are. 

– Pema Chödrön

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

If you are invested in security and certainty, 

you are on the wrong planet. 

-Pema Chödrön 

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

Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, 

what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? 

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

this is what it means to be human,” and 

decided to sit down and enjoy the ride? 

-Pema Chödrön

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

Nothing ever goes away 

until it teaches us 

what we need to know. 

-Pema Chödrön

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

 

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

DSC00274

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

A Lesson in Leadership

Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of 

their ability to empower others. 

-John Maxwell

 

Leadership is a burden. That is the truth. It is far easier to follow. It is even easier to do nothing at all.  I remember, when I was a little kid, hearing other kids say that they wanted to grow up to be president. I didn’t. Of course, I was a girl born in the 60’s so, as kids they say these days, that wasn’t even a thing.  But even if I had been born male, being president sounded horrible back then. There was a war going on. There was marching in the streets. The evening news was a nightmare in black and white.  Some kids’ dads got drafted. We had to wait in line forever to get gas for our car. There was litter everywhere and, for some reason, I thought the president was even in charge of taking care of that problem.  So why do it at all? Why take a leadership role in anything?  I have pondered this question repeatedly over the course of my life. I have been a school administrator.  I have known mayors, police chiefs, commanding officers, company presidents, non-profit executives, and superintendents.  I believe every one of them would agree that leadership is one of the most rewarding and the most challenging parts of their life.  Bringing together and mobilizing a group of diverse stakeholders to realize a shared vision and carry out a worthy mission is both exhilarating and daunting.  And yet, I think we all should step up and lead when and where we are called. I also believe that every person has the capacity to lead.

 

Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

-Jack Layton

 

A couple months ago, a former student of mine, Erin, told me that she wished she had taken my Leadership class in high school.  While it warmed my heart (and fed my ego) to think that someone thought that they missed out by not taking one of my classes, I had to tell her the truth: “Obviously you didn’t miss anything because you are doing just great.”  And that was the truth. I wish she could see herself through my eyes or the eyes of her family and friends, because then she would know with absolute certainty that she is a powerful leader.  She loves fiercely and gives generously.  She believes in her community, and when she says “we take care of our own”, it is not some trite slogan.  It is a truth she lives.

 

It’s amazing what you can accomplish 

if you don’t care who gets the credit. 

-Harry S. Truman

 

On May 11, Erin had the thinnest glimmer of an idea to help one of her oldest and dearest friends raise the money to achieve her bucket list. She knew that the clock was ticking. She rolled up her sleeves, opened her contacts list and started talking.  Now, had she taken my class 25 years ago, I would have advised her to take a step back. Six weeks is nowhere near enough time to plan, advertise and hold a 5K benefit run especially if you have never put one on before.  To give her the greatest chance of a successful learning experience, I would have tried to manage her expectations for what could be accomplished in such a short time.  But this wasn’t a school assignment that had to be completed in a semester, and I wasn’t her teacher. This was an act of love in a race against the clock, and I am older and wiser than I was when I was a teacher.  So, when she began planning, I put my cautions in check and cheered her on.  And watching her leadership grow was a thing of beauty. Every day brought obstacles – permits, waivers, insurance, banking, advertising, registration, shirts, water stations, volunteers, and safety.  Every little obstacle brought gifts: generous donations from business, volunteers stepping up, classmates coming together and community organizations pitching in. She won’t take any credit for this, and it is not some false humility. Even if she did not learn it in a leadership class, she knows instinctively what the best leaders know:  You do not accomplish anything on your own.  She knows instinctively what the best leaders do: Give credit where credit is due and gratitude to those who step up.

 

If you want something bad enough, you will find a way.  

If you don’t, you will find an excuse. 

-Jim Rohn 

She reminded me of the amazing things that the teenagers accomplished in my class fueled by boundless enthusiasm, and unfettered by the constraints of excessive caution that comes with life experience.  She reminded me that leadership is a skill you can develop at any time in your life given enough passion, purpose, and persistence. Here are the lessons I learned (or relearned) from Erin’s Leadership Class:

  1. Every single person has the capacity to be a leader. Not everyone has the will. When you see the light of leadership ignite, be the one who fans the flames.
  2. If you find your passion and an obstacle, you have a breeding ground for leadership. In the words of Jim Rohn, if you want something bad enough, you will find a way. If you don’t, you will find an excuse.
  3. Bring people together and make them feel like the critical member of the team that they are.
  4. Give credit where credit is due.  In the words of Erin, no one fights alone.
  5. Model gratitude.  You cannot thank people enough. You cannot thank enough people.
  6. Take care of your team. People will work their fingers to the bone for love. They will only comply temporarily out of fear or consequence.
  7. Give people a reason to care. Every person wants to make a difference.
  8. Be a servant leader, not a leader with servants.  Roll up your sleeves and do the hard work alongside your team.  Don’t ask people to do what you are not willing to do.
  9. Ask for help. People want to contribute. In the words of Max Lucado, no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
  10. Accept help.  You are going to need it. Everybody does.
  11. When you make a mistake, own it and then make it right.  You need to model what you expect in others: growth mindset, and accountability.
  12. Be clear about your values. As Peter Drucker says, leadership is not just doing things right. It is doing right things.
  13. Every leader has to make the hard decisions.  There will always be someone who does not agree with your decision. Even if someone is angry with your decision, you can sleep well at night as long as you did the right thing.
  14. Have a strong inner compass. You can be flexible and open, and still be very clear about what you stand for and what you will accept.
  15. Know when to push. Know when to pull. Know when to lean. Know when to lift.

Leadership is a burden. That is a fact. But it is a burden worth bearing.  Find your passion, refuse to accept the obstacles, gather up your team, and change somebody’s world. You can do it. Erin did.

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Leadership in Style
(1/320 sec., f/4, ISO 320, 55 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Living in the Moment

I was awakened at 2:51 AM yesterday morning by the unmistakable rumble of an earthquake. It was a relatively small one, 4.7, but it shook me awake.  My daughter shouted from the other room. I realize I have failed her in the Emergency Preparedness training department because she immediately ran to my room and jumped in bed with me. It only lasted a few moments and, in my 54 years, I have experienced many of these tremors living in the Pacific Northwest.  I probably should have run for a doorway.  But my lack of good sense is not the topic of this story so I will let that go for now.  Buttercup the Boxer Pup apparently knew it was coming because she was already hunkered down by the time the quake jolted us awake (apparently it is every dog for herself in an earthquake). We lathere snuggled togetherButtercup and my daughter were very distressed by the whole thing. Buttercup was panting uncontrollably. My daughter was furiously Googling earthquakes which of course brought images and statistics of the worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  Don’t misunderstand me, emergency preparedness is very important.  In the end, that is all that you can do- prepare.  When Mother Nature tries to wipe the planet clean or the earth tries to shake us off, we are powerless to stop it.  We can prepare but we cannot prevent most natural disasters.  I hate that. Literally. I hate it. I hate that something bad could happen that is completely beyond my control.  I hate that I can prepare and practice and do all the right things, and still an earthquake (tornado, illness, freak accident, hurricane….)  could change everything. I am a planner. I am always thinking about the long game. I believe what we do today makes a difference in our tomorrows.  I do believe all of that is true.  It is also true that we live in the present moment. It is also true that we cannot control the millions of things that might happen in the next moment. So, the present moment matters.   

That is what occurred to me as I was snuggled in close to my daughter and our pup.  This present moment matters. It matters to let her talk it out.  It matters to give comfort and reassurance. It matters to listen.  While we were laying there waiting for the aftershocks, I  was reminded of one of my favorite moments from her childhood.  When she was very little, just out of a crib and into a big girl bed, she would listen for her dad to get in the shower in the morning. Quiet as a little mouse, she would pad across the hall and slide into bed next to me. She would snuggle in close and fall asleep with her warm cheek on my shoulder and her tiny hand on my arm.  In the morning, she would have a dreamy look as I would get out of bed to get ready for work.  Invariably the pups would jump in bed with her as soon as I left, soaking up the warmth I left behind.  As I did my hair and makeup, she would chatter away telling me everything that was on her mind. I can feel the smile now, just thinking about it, that I had hearing her describe her adventures and discoveries.  A moment. A string of moments. That is all that life is – a string of moments.  Each one a gift. Not all of them are good. Most we cannot control. We should not miss a single one of them.  I thought that morning:  I should get up and check the house for damage; I should call my husband (I did); I should do something. Then I realized I was doing something. I was having a very special moment with a very special person. A moment I was never getting back.  And so, I laid there awake for a couple of hours – in the moment. 

I selected this picture because it reminded me that when she was little, the best moments were the simplest ones. Just holding her, in my arms, heart and mind, while she slept seemed like the most important thing in the moment. It still is.

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Battles of Courage and Love: Cindy’s Journey 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Big Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Obstacles and Opportunities

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The monsters under the bed are in your head.

I remember when my daughter finally got too big for the sink.  She was lean and long, and came into this world with her tiny muscles flexed.  Her mighty legs foreshadowed her inner strength.  We knew it was time when she pressed her toes against the far edge of the tub, flexed her miniature quads and glutes, and shot forward to grab the bananas off the counter.  After months of straining to reach the bright yellow torpedoes, she found success.  The mischievous grin that spread across her face warned us of things to come.

It was time to transition her to the ‘big girl’ tub.   As most babies do, she preferred the security of tight spaces.  Her father was a pro at swaddling from the start, wrapping her up tightly in a plush blanket.  He would joke, as he hugged her tiny body against his chest, that he made a baby burrito.  The vast white tub was scary for her.  Her arms and legs pinwheeled wildly the first time we set her in the warm water, much of which was on the floor before we were done.

Trying desperately to avoid lasting trauma, we filled the tub with toys.   I kept my eyes peeled for distractions whenever I went to the store.  I remember finding a Dora the Explorer bathtub doll that would swim when it got wet.  My daughter was a devotee of Dora’s adventures and could be heard each morning shouting “Backpack! Backpack!” I thought the purchase was evidence of brilliant parenting.  Dora’s first voyage in the tub was an unprecedented success. All other toys were immediately relegated to the foot, as my daughter splashed about with her new friend.

My victory over her tub aversion was short-lived, though. We were awakened in the middle of the night by our daughter’s terrified screams. I rushed across the hall and lifted her out of her crib, checking for broken bones and cuts as I held her close and rocked. Through her sobs, I made out the word monster. I told her there were no monsters. Turning on the lights, I opened the closet doors but she would not be consoled.  ‘Monster! Monster!’, she cried pointing toward the hallway.  I rocked her as I walked toward the hall. She clung to me like a spider monkey facing a puma.  She wore herself out crying and fell asleep on my shoulder, her wet cheek blanketing my neck.

I was standing in the hall trying to figure out what had scared her so, when I heard it.  It whirred at first, then a cold, sharp tapping. Whirr, tap, tap, tap.  I followed the noise to the bathroom where I found Dora on her side, legs and arms outstretched. The censors had somehow been tripped and the doll had started swimming in the empty tub. I tried to explain there were no monsters. She certainly was too young to understand what was making the noise.  She was convinced it was a monster. Of course, I knew the circuit was just wet. Once she had the monster story in her head, she just wouldn’t believe anything else. And so, we vanquished every monster until she was old enough to understand. In this case, not wanting to ruin her beloved Dora, I set my daughter back in bed and quietly took the toy to the garage.

While you are probably too old to think that there are monsters under your bed, the truth is we all have monsters. Mostly, they are in your head.  They are the worries about what could happen, the what-ifs and why-nots. They are the painful rehashing of past events.  They are the fears you can’t seem to let go of no matter how much evidence to the contrary you have. They are the false, self-limiting beliefs you hold.  They are old voices telling old lies.  Just as we have courage and compassion when helping children to see that the monsters are in their heads, we can have that same courage and compassion in confronting our own monsters. We can decide to live in the present and not waste it worrying about a fictional future.  We can let go of a past that we cannot change.  We can look at the evidence that our fears are unfounded.  We can recognize that a negative voice in our head is never our own voice and it is never truthful.  Isn’t it time to turn on the lights, look under the bed, and put the monsters in the garage?

I selected his picture of my daughter’s second birthday. She is clinging to her aunt after meeting the large (and I thought loveable) rodent who tried to wish her a Happy Birthday. It took about 2 hours to convince her that he wasn’t a monster.  Eventually she even shook his hand.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

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?

 

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Me circa 2003, doing some riveting principal-ing.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

You know, when you know.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Seeing Through the Memories of Your Heart 

Our book club recently read the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Less by Andrew Sean Greer.  It was a strange and beautiful story.  Toward the end, the main character is reflecting on giving up a younger lover as he grapples with the disdain he has for his aging body. One of his friends points out that this lover did not know him at 20 in all his youthful glory. They fell in love while Less was in his 40s and that is all his lover knows and remembers of Less.  That struck me as profoundly true and beautiful.

We see ourselves as we are now,

knowing what we once were. 

Those who love us, though, 

see us through the memories in their hearts.

Like all great books, Greer shined a light on a universal truth of the human condition:  We see ourselves as we are now, knowing what we once were. Those who love us, though, see us through the memories in their hearts.  Whenever my husband exclaims “Your mama is hot!”, in the presence of our mortified daughter, I know for a fact that we see through our heart memories.  In the strictest, traditional sense of the word ‘hot’, I haven’t been ‘hot’ for decades (unless you are counting the hot that comes in flashes).  Though my daughter rolls her eyes and warns, “All right, that’s enough of that now!”, I don’t roll my eyes. You see, I know something at 53 that she cannot possibly know at 18.  I know he sees me through the memories in his heart.

He sees the 18-year-old me he fell in love with, who he apparently thought was hot.  He sees a girl in a pink polka dot sundress in the bright midnight sun of Alaska. He sees a girl in cowboy boots and jeans moving mares and foals to the pasture.  He sees me driving his truck too fast on a dirt road, belting out a John Hiatt tune.  I know this for a fact because when I look at him, I see a strapping buck of 19 in a Hickory shirt, jeans and Carhartt jacket who made me laugh and rode out the storms of my over-the-top Greek-Irish personality.  I see the strong man who held me gently when my best friend died. I see the adventurous spirit who drove us into the wilderness and changed the way I looked at life. I see him through the memories in my heart.

Scott Bird hunting

I realize this does not just apply to him.  It applies to all of the people who have meant something in my life. I see them all through my heart memories.  Unfortunately, like Less, I also see I have held back from reaching out thinking that too much time has passed, or I have changed too much, or they won’t remember me.

At Christmas, a friend from high school messaged me through Facebook.  I had not talked to him since 1984.  In mere moments, we were caught up with each other and the crowd we hung with.  We have, of course, changed so much in the last 35 years. And yet all of those changes are so easy to fold into my vision of him that is solidly implanted in the memories of my heart. He was so kind to me when I was a new kid in a small town where acceptance seemed predicated on whether or not your first breaths were taken there. As a junior in high school with a southern accent and an east coast style, I felt so apart and he made me feel a part.  There is nothing that has happened in thirty-five years, and believe me a lot has happened to both of us, that will ever change the vision I have of him and his friendship through my heart.

That loosened the reins holding back my heart. I thought about all of the people along the way I have lost touch with who still hold a solid place in the memories of my heart.  I started reaching out.  It made me realize that, if I see people through my heart’s memories, then I must be seen that way too. So, what is the price of reaching out really?   The only risk is what you have right now – a connection broken. It may stay broken. More likely, it will become a connection interrupted.  It is beautiful to see that the girl with the biggest smile is still smiling as she chases around her grandbaby; that joyous, kind former-student is raising two lovely girls of her own; and the quiet boy with a quick wit is realizing his dreams. From the milestones to the mundane, it is beautiful to see them all now through the memories of my heart.

Who are you missing from the memories of your heart?

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Kindergarten- Where we all belong.

I started my day in kindergarten yesterday.  Every day that I get to be in a kindergarten is a great day.  First of all, they are adorable. Right there, you are guaranteed to start your day with a smile.  They bounce and bop down the halls, happy as clams that it is Friday morning and the school day has started. Everything is a fresh adventure.  That kind of joy is contagious. It’s winter so they look a little like turtles with their fat backpacks, all bundled up, heads peeking out of their parka hoods. Brightly colored sneakers and rain boots with ducks and frogs fidget in a line outside the classroom door- itching to get in.  They are a hive of activity storing their gear in cubbies, high-fiving and knuckle-knocking their buddies like it’s been months and not 16 hours since they last checked in. They help each other without being asked and without judgment. They accept help gratefully.  They cannot wait to share- share their space, share their pencils, share their expertise in tying shoes, and share their ideas and opinions (I got quite an earful on the topic of pet ownership).  A friend is picked to help with an errand.  Hugs are given to someone who looks sad.  They take each other by the hand unabashedly. They don’t seem to notice their differences. They are a community and it is clear they all belong.

This visit made me think about when it is that we start, as humans, to wonder if we belong. How is it that we start to feel like we don’t belong in a place or with a group of people?  Maybe it starts when we begin to notice how we are different from each other.  I like to play in the woods and get dirty. You like to read. I like to play basketball. You like to sing. You are quiet. I am loud.  Maybe it is when we start to hear from adults that those differences have a value. She’s such a tomboy. He can’t throw a baseball.  He has a beautiful voice. You’re always such a mess with dirt all over your jeans.  Her painting is beautiful.  You are so talented. Well, there are other things you are good at I am sure.  Maybe it is when we start to identify with those values. I am good at this. I am not good at that. Whatever the process, we look for a place we think we belong.  We look for a place that feels right- where we feel right.  We look for our people, our posse, our pack.  It feels good to belong.  I think that is the natural order of things.

But wouldn’t it be great if we never asked ourselves, “Is this where I belong?”   Wouldn’t it be great if we never wondered, “Is this place for me?”  You see, as soon as we do that, we limit ourselves.  We take ourselves out of the game.  We buy the artificial “goodness” and “badness” of our individual characteristics.  We miss out on the opportunity to learn new things- things we might actually like doing and even have a talent for doing. We miss out on meeting new people. We miss the chance to find out that those differences, which we think divide us, really enrich us. We miss out on the very real possibility that we have more in common than we think. We miss out on the high-fiving, knuckle-knocking, hand-holding joy that comes from knowing what every kindergartener knows – we all deserve to belong.

Maybe instead of worrying whether or not we belong, we should be thinking about how we can make others feel like they do.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The downfalls of multi-tasking – or, as my Daddy would say, “Half-assing”

This morning I PR’ed (Personal Record) on the Erg, or as I like to call it the “Magical Sliding Instrument of Pain”.  I rowed 5881 meters in 30 minutes and my split broke the dreaded 2:30 by just seconds.  Now, for all you flat-abbed, bicep-bulging, custom-calved whippersnappers out there chuckling at my sub-sub-sub-lightning speed, keep in mind I am 53 years old and 40% of my spine is being held together by 3 V-clips and a dead guys bone putty (God rest your soul and I thank you, sincerely).  I have had terrible workouts for the last two weeks.  I was embarrassed to hit save on my times, though I am the only one who ever checks the memory.  At first, I blamed it on my Christmas holiday nose dive into chocolate in all of its wonderful symphony of forms.  Then I blamed it on distraction as my mind has been preoccupied by a very exciting data visualization I am developing. For those of you who fell asleep in the middle of that sentence, yes- I said exciting, dare I say, thrilling data visualization.  Trust me. It is revolutionary.  I expect oohs and aahs commensurate with the Rockets’ Red Glare finale on the Fourth of July on Lake Union when I finish.  But I digress. Then I blamed it on stress.  There are many changes happening at home and at work. Finally, I blamed it on the block I have been having on a piece I am writing. But then this morning, as I was hammering out the meters to rousing beats of Ugly Lights, Gone and Restless, in the shadow of Mount Rainier on the glassy surface of Lake Washington (OK that part was in my imagination. I was in the spare bedroom.), I realized that I wasn’t plugged into an audiobook. I wasn’t taking advantage of this extra 30 minutes in my life to listen to a book and learn, or think about why the data wasn’t aggregating correctly, or prioritize the top 10 things I had to get done today.  I was just rowing. Empty-headed. Focused on nothing more that my breath, the pull of my arms on the bar, the force of my legs against the footrest, the slide of seat.  I was flying and my head was empty.  That is a blissful thing for someone like me who is always thinking.  That thirty minutes to be solely, viscerally engaged is indescribable.  It is a hard reset, refreshing and cleansing.

Somewhere along the line, I bought the whole “multi-tasking” snake oil. I even tried to do it for a very long time, decades really. I convinced myself that I could do it.  The truth is that I could get a lot done but none of it was really my best work.  My best work came when I was focused on doing one task very well.  Ironically, it was also more efficient.  It turns out, according to Earl Miller of MIT, that when we try to multi-task, we are really just shifting back and forth between each task (http://fortune.com/2016/12/07/why-you-shouldnt-multitask/ ).  Starting and stopping does not allow us to think deeply or creatively.  It feels like we are doing two things at once because often the two things we are trying to do are using the same parts of our brain like talking and emailing. So, the switching back and forth seems fluid. It seems like we are doing them at the same time.  Yet, we are, in fact, starting and stopping repeatedly.  If you have ever tried to listen to a recording in a series of segments, you know that you have to back the recording up to remember where you were and what was being said every time you restart it. It is hard to follow a recording in stops and starts.  Your brain does that too as you shift between tasks.  So, there I was, to my amazement, on track to break 5900 meters when I started calculating in my head how many meters that would be in 5 minutes.  You wouldn’t think doing division in my head would effect the motions of my arms and legs, but that is exactly what happened.  As I turned my focus from my breath and body to my beloved math, my rate dropped precipitously.  (I should make a graph of that. It would be a work of art.  I would call it, “The Inverse Relationship Between Rowing Pace and Math Computational Practice”.)  So it wasn’t stress or chocolate that was to blame for my substandard times these past two weeks.  It was distraction.  Trying to learn from an audiobook or make a list for my day, shifted my focus and, since working out and critical thinking aren’t related, the shift was anything but seamless.  Shifting my focus back to my breath and the workout changed everything. As a bonus, it turns out that the reset I got from unplugging for that 30 minutes not only resulted in a Personal Record but it had an amazing impact on my day.  I solved a complex problem I have been working on and created something I am truly proud of.  Brain science was in its infancy, possibly even pre-natal,  in my youth. Apparently though, my dad knew something instinctively that Earl Miller has since scientifically validated.  My dad was a little less scientific and a little more poetic. Whether you call it multi-tasking or half-assing, you’re better off if you do one thing at a time and give it your full and undivided attention.

 

If I hadn’t done that one math problem, I could have broke 5900 meters. There is always tomorrow…

erg

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

Make a Habit of It

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

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

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

What habits are holding you back?

More importantly, what habits would make your life better?

 

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Endings and Beginnings

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dawn pacific northwest forest in winter

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

Father (-in-Law) Christmas

I get a little nostalgic at Christmastime.  I suppose I am not alone in that. Christmas is such a magical season. It brings back bright and twinkling memories of people and places long gone.  I miss my father-in-law most at Christmastime.  My father-in-law loved having Christmas morning with his granddaughter.  We would travel to his house on Christmas Eve and spend the night just so that he could see her face on Christmas morning.  He made a huge production of putting out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.  He had a special plate just for that night that he put on a table next to his chair in case Santa needed a rest. He would let her pick out the cookies. For her troubles, she would eat a couple and insist that he join her.  My father-in-law waited so long for her. I would like to say patiently but it would be a lie.  He wanted a grandbaby from the time I first met him, I think.  When she finally came along, he was the best kind of grandpa. You know the ones.  They get down on the floor ignoring the roar of their creaky knees.  They hide drawers of candy because they love to hear the squeals of delight and feel those reckless hugs.  They can be talked into any mischief by doe-eyes and butterfly kisses.  They will walk hunched over for miles just to be able to hold those tiny fingers as they explore their old world through their grandbaby’s new eyes.  They know that in the potentially 42,048,000 minutes in a lifetime, this one minute right now is the only one that truly matters.   That was my father-in-law. I was so happy that my baby was his special kid.  I had that with my grandpa. I knew he would not be around forever, but I also knew the memories of being loved so deeply and unconditionally would last her a lifetime.

They got into quite a lot of mischief over the years.  One time she even talked him into a water fight in grandma’s kitchen having discovered that the faucet was actually a hose. For a time after that he was barred from unsupervised babysitting for fear she would talk him into buying a motorcycle and heading down the coast. Believe me, when she aimed those baby blues at him, he lost all reason. He would do anything just so see her smile.

Splish Splash

Caught in the Act – The Fateful Faucet Incident of 2003

One year, I went alone to mass on Christmas Eve leaving her, secure in the fact that she would be safe with her father, grandma and grandpa.  I naively thought that at least one of those adults would be impervious to her wily ways.  When I returned, there was a somber mood in the house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Somebody spilled glue on grandma’s dining room table,” my husband replied.

Somebody?” I asked incredulously.  I wasn’t even there when it had happened, and I knew “somebody” didn’t do it.  I was sure I knew the ‘body’ that did.  I briefly wondered how she even ended up with glue in the first place but, even at the ripe old age of 4, she could have charmed them all out of their car keys.

Sheepishly he replied, “She says the cat did it.”

“Seriously?!” I wasn’t sure if I was more annoyed at her lying or their inability to get her to admit she was lying.

I called her to my side. “Who spilled glue on the table?”

“Grandpa did,” she stated firmly.

I looked up and was met by two pairs of wide eyes signaling their amazement that she had taken it up a notch.  I turned to my father-in-law, who was putting a superhuman effort into not breaking out in laughter. “Did you spill glue on the table?”

It took a moment for him to compose himself and I was grateful that he understood the gravity of the situation.  Laughing at this moment would have launched many more exasperating moments.

“Um, no. I did not spill glue on the table,” he replied in his most serious voice.

I looked her in the eye and said, “Grandpa says he did not spill the glue. I don’t think Grandpa would lie to us. Do you?”

She didn’t bother responding to that.  Instead, dismissing the other adults as possible suspects, she turned on the only other living being.

“The cat did it.”

I had to dismiss the adults as they were now all holding back their laughter.

“Sweetie, the cat does not have opposable thumbs, so I think we can safely rule out the cat,” I stated, hoping she would come clean faced with this undisputable evidence clearing the poor cat.

“Well,” she started (and I groaned), “I don’t know about disposable thumbs, but the cat did it.”

It was time to bring out the big guns.  “Sweetie, do you know what mama does for a living? I am a high school principal. Believe me, I get kids to tell me the truth who’ve done far worse things than spilling glue on a table. You are not even a challenge.  I want you to sit here and when you are ready to tell me the truth about what happened, you let me know.” I walked away. While outwardly I was resolute and confident, inwardly I was a tornado of emotion.  She was lying! She would not admit it. Parenting is so hard.

In the end, I was right. It took her all of three minutes to come clean.  With tears in her eyes, I hugged her and reminded her that it is not OK to lie.  That lying about it is far worse than spilling glue on a table. I also told her that she needed to make things right, especially with her Grandpa after throwing him under the proverbial bus.  She clung to my legs, sniffling. I could tell she was afraid to take that first step.

“Go on. Tell him you are sorry for saying he did it. He loves you. He will forgive you.”

With a teddy bear in one hand and a thumb in her mouth, she walked tentatively to her grandpa. Eyes fixed on her patent leather shoes, she squeaked, “I’m sorry.” He scooped her up in a big hug and told her it was OK.  He told her he loved her as she clung to his neck crying.  She stayed particularly close to him that Christmas.  She probably does not remember this incident except that she has been told the story a million times. I know she will never forget his hugs, his candy drawer, or singing “Splish, Splash”. She will never forget those special Christmas mornings.  She will never forget she was his favorite and he was hers.

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Her First Motorcycle- His Idea!

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

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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!

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Empathy Gap – Don’t Fall In

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Heading for the Door

She was three and a half when I spied her heading for the front door out of the corner of my eye.  She shuffled down the hall in a pair of my black heels intently watching her feet.  On one side, her tiny fingers were outstretched to the wall for balance. On the other, she had slung her diaper bag over her shoulder. It skipped and bounced across the carpet with each awkward step.  I was curious, so I let her go.  When she reached the stairs, she carefully grabbed the railing and slowly eased her foot down the way a little kid does when each step is nearly the height of one leg.  I headed to the top of the stairs and sat down, my eyes now level with hers. “Hey, whatcha doing with your diaper bag? You can’t be running away from home already.” I chuckled at the thought. She looked at me quizzically and proclaimed, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  After a short moment of cringing (I had 4 “beefcases” and many more meetings), I laughed and scooped her up.  She was squirming because, after all, she had places to be and I was holding her back. Like every other three-year-old though, she was easy to distract and redirect. I was the master of that.  I asked about her meeting and she went into great and emphatic detail about the many important things that had to be done. I made a note to remember that she was a sponge- soaking everything up that she saw or heard.

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It took me back to my own childhood. I loved to play in my dad’s office.  He had fascinating pieces of paper and so many books. Even before I could read, I would pretend to fill out the forms and make notes. I would pretend to read the textbooks.  The pictures filled my imagination – exotic animals, colorful maps, geometric shapes, and paintings.  I particularly liked the Spanish books. I wanted so badly to be able to read so I could read in Spanish. Back then, I had no idea what he actually did, but it seemed so important and I wanted to be just like him.

That is the natural course of things. You look up at the significant adults in your life. You mimic what you see and hear. You play house and school and super heroes.  Then you grow up and, as you do, you test the waters of individuality and independence.  You discover your own passion and that puts you on the path that will be your life. As a parent, even though I want to scoop her up in a big hug and distract her, I know that it is nearly time. It is nearly time to let her go out that door.  When that time comes, we will both be ready. After all, she has places to be and I’m not holding her back.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Of Grapes and Friendship

Last weekend, my best friend and I recruited a few enthusiastic volunteers (our husbands and one of our dear friends) and we pressed 400 pounds of grape must.  I have been making wine from kits for about 20 years with pretty solid success.  In addition to getting about 30 bottles of delicious vino for my troubles, I have always marveled in the process.  In particular, I find yeast to be one of the most interesting organisms.  The fact that it can turn sugar into alcohol is nothing short of miraculous.  Don’t get me started on what it does to wheat!  One tiny packet of yeast cells, a couple of weeks multiplying exponentially and out comes 30 bottles of wine.  I had always wanted to start with grapes, though. Truth be told, I wanted to grow the grapes, harvest the grapes, crush the grapes….. you get the idea.  We’ve never had the room to do it.  Even though the yeast is doing much of the work, there is a lot of labor and we have never had the time.  Last year, a friend of mine told me about his adventures in home winemaking from the vineyard and I was hooked.  So, I did what I always do- I got a book. Then I asked about a million questions of my expert friend. Then I called up my best friend and said, “I am going to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes and make wine. You should do it with me. It’ll be fun.”  I always throw that last part in, even if it might not really be fun because, when we are together, we are always having fun.  And she’s the best kind of best friend because she never says “No!” or “Have you lost your mind?” or “What is wrong with you?”. No matter how hair-brained my idea might be, she’s always in.

“We should ride up Mount St Helen’s to celebrate my 50th birthday. It’ll be fun.”

“We should go see Great Big Sea. It’ll be fun.”

“We should stand in the rain all day waiting to watch a 5-minute race. It’ll be fun.”

And even at 0400 on my birthday, standing next to our bikes white-knuckled and shivering, frost hanging from our noses, wishing we had dressed for winter not fall, fixing a flat tire on the side of the road, she would say, “It’s all good.” It was a bear of a ride. I know because it took three hours up and only one hour back down.  But she never complained, and I talked her into a way worse ride eight months later (after her memories started to fade). Let’s just say they advertised a mostly flat 75 miles with a couple of hills and it was a mostly hilly 75 miles with a couple of flats.  I think of us as a cross between Lucy and Ethyl (if Lucy and Ethyl had doctorates) and Thelma and Louise (if Thelma and Louise were not self-destructive and made better choices where men were concerned).

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Like all other things, she was all in on my grape acquisition adventure.  We ordered three hundred pounds of Sangiovese grapes and the real fun began.  We spent hours planning how we were physically going to manage this. By the time we collected all of the equipment we already had and bought some things we needed, we applied what I call the “20-Mile Logic”.  The 20-Mile Logic goes like this:  If we can ride 40 miles, we can ride 60.  If we can ride 60, we can ride 80. So, if we can ride 40, we can ride 80.  And it only gets more absurd from there.  So, a couple weeks before the harvest, we called the vintner and asked for another hundred pounds of Petit Verdot. Because, of course, if we can ferment 300 pounds, we can ferment 400 pounds. With each passing week, I watched the Brix levels come in with an intensity I only remember in the final months of pregnancy. When will the grapes be ready?!

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When the day finally came, my husband volunteered to drive over to the Portteus Vineyard in Zillah to pick them up. We really had no idea what to expect as we made the long trek from the rainy side to the sunny side of the state.  As we rolled through the vineyard, we passed row upon row of vines fat with clusters of grapes.  Each variety was unique- some fatter, some deeper in hue, some hanging on the vine lazing in the sun, some seemingly floating off the branches.  We stopped at the tasting room purely for scientific reasons. It is important to know what your wine is supposed to taste like, after all. Then we headed out a large cement patio covered in crates of grapes.  With a short lesson on filling buckets from the crusher-destemmer, we jumped in the back of the pick up and quickly started laying out the buckets. I was given a 6-inch-wide hose which I surmised was going to be shooting out grape juice shortly as the crate was dropped into the bin.  As I looked at my friend, I was picturing Lucy and Ethyl trying to keep up with the candy conveyor belt. There I was precariously perched on the tailgate, gripping the hose for dear life.  Instinctively I crouched down against the impending force of 400 pounds of grapes like I was preparing to be on the receiving end of a charging foul.  I imagined myself shooting backward from the pressure and the viral replay on America’s Funniest Home Video.   It wasn’t quite that bad in the end, but we were working hard to keep the empty buckets coming forward and the filled buckets lined up in the back.  That was the easy part it turned out.

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My dining room furniture was pushed into a corner to make room for our winery.  Barriers were erected to thwart my curious Boxer.  In the following days and weeks, we perfected testing for the Brix level, pH and tartaric acid. I felt like I was back in CHEM101. After we threw the yeast, the cap of grapes skins that floated to the top of each bucket had to be punched down at least three times a day. The cap seemed to be swelling before our eyes each time. At one point, I put out an SOS when two of the buckets had grown mountainous caps like something out of a horror movie. When the Sangiovese finished days before the Petit Verdot and way before we had a bladder press reserved, I frantically googled and then hysterically called my friend to alert her that we had an emergency- Carbon Dioxide or Argon were needed stat.  After a short and awkward silence which I was sure was going to be ended by “I’m out!”, she said, “My soda stream makes CO2. Why can’t we use that?” She is brilliant. Though we had seen countless ominous videos of first-time pressers covered in raw wine from head to toe, pressing was a breeze. We had a lot of help and it went off like clockwork.  So now we wait for several weeks in this last phase before aging. It will be months before we bottle and more still before we know if all our efforts have yielded the nectar we hope it will.

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This has been a learning process.  Making wine is a lot like life.

  1.  Sometimes the smallest things have the greatest impact: yeast cells, simple kindness, holding a baby, wiping a tear, helping someone up, cheering someone on. It is the little things that multiply exponentially- just like yeast.  If you don’t believe me, try smiling at everyone you see tomorrow.

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2.   Think ahead and read the directions. There are a lot of steps in winemaking and they can come at you so fast.  You don’t want to be standing with a siphon full of wine without a clean carboy.

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3.   Improvise- sometimes reading ahead just isn’t enough. Who would have thought we could use a soda stream and a fish tank tube in winemaking?

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4.  Have faith. Just because you cannot see something happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

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5.   Patience. Sometimes the greatest rewards take the longest time.

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6.   Most importantly, everything is always better when you have a best friend you can count on who gets you.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Adventure Days!

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

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

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

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Adventure Day 2014

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

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

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

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

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

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

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

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Memories Under the Big Sky

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Have You Thanked a Teacher Lately?

I have a confession to make.  I have a box in my garage that I take out every time I am wondering about whether I am making a difference in this world.  It’s not full of trophies.  There are no framed awards in the box.  Nothing is engraved or embossed.  It is a box of notes and gifts I received as a teacher.  Some are on beautifully printed cards. Most are on college ruled paper.  Some of the things in the box only I would understand- like the blue ribbon from one of my seniors that he got for showing his dog; or the watercolor a father painted for me after I coached his son in track; or the flyer commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery that a graduate sent me with a small rock she picked up on that very bridge. The handwritten notes thanking me for things I would have said were “just doing my job” but that seemed big to a teenager. Unnecessary apologies from kids who were just being kids but who were mortified by their actions as they matured.  Candy canes stuck to notecards wishing me a relaxing winter break without homework to grade.  Invitations to graduation parties. College graduation notices. Wedding invitations. Precious remnants of life as a teacher.

You see, teaching is a really hard job. Whether you are an elementary teacher working with 30 students all day or a secondary teacher seeing 150 students in 55-minute blocks throughout the day, you are completely focused on them the whole time. You spend your free time thinking of new ways to engage your students in the learning. You worry about not reaching that kid in the back who seems to be fading out of school.  You cheer for them to succeed in and out of the classroom. You hope they believe you when you tell them that they can do it; that they are smart enough. You pray they will be persistent enough to get it and resilient enough to survive the painful times they come up short.  I believe that at the core of every teacher is a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. It is not just to impart academic knowledge but to play a part in developing healthy, happy, competence adults.  It is helping them navigate growing up, solve problems, and negotiate with adults. It is helping them discover and develop their talents and passions. It is helping them overcome their fears. Failure in any of that is, frankly, painful as a teacher. Being a teacher is not just a job like any other job. Being a teacher is central to who you are as a person. It is a calling.

In my own life, teachers have been so important in helping me to become who I am today. I am sure every one of them would say that they were just doing their jobs.  But they are wrong. They were doing so much more.  Ms. Rassmussen was my kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary School. She was so kind and patient that even today, when I think of her, I picture a fairy princess.  I was so scared to go to kindergarten and she made it a place I wanted to be. Sister Estelle at St. Luke’s gave me big bear hugs for seemingly no reason at all.  She knew I needed them even when I did not.  Mrs. Elam at Redan High School wouldn’t cut me any slack when I did not understand freshman science. She believed in me even when I did not.  Mr. Rabitoy at Mt. Si High School made me want to be a biology teacher. Mr. Byrd at Redan High School taught me that the only person who could limit what I could learn is me.  Mr. Harshmann at Pinelake Junior High, who noticed I was not acting normal in class, took on the school bully for me.  I became a principal because of Mr. Venn at Mt. Si High School.  Dr. Lokken gave me my first shot at teaching with a job teaching CHEM101 lab at the University of Alaska.  Dr. Guest taught me to live my best life to the very last moment even if I know that moment is coming soon.  Madame Seay at Redan High School taught me that smart girls are powerful girls.  Mr. Odum, who was forced to enter me in the 100 m lows (I’m 5’4”) to satisfy the district rules in track and field, taught me to lose with grace and to win with grace.

I have written my share of thank you notes to teachers as a student. Now that I am a parent, I feel that gratitude so much more deeply.  It is an amazing thing to know that your child is surrounded by caring adults who know her well and want her to succeed.  Though I have thanked many, I know I can do better. I think it is natural to thank a teacher at the end of the school year. Those are very special notes.   I know teachers appreciate knowing that they are making a difference throughout the year too.  In December, when everyone is tired and cold and waiting impatiently for the winter break, a note of thanks will make a teacher’s day, or week, or even year.  A thank you note to a teacher is like a long drive in golf- getting one will keep you playing with a smile for a very long time.  In fact, I know teachers appreciate knowing they made a difference whenever you are ready to tell them. You might be thinking of a teacher right now that you had many years ago in school.  It’s not too late to tell them that they made a difference in your life.

To all the teachers, school counselors, school staff members and principals, thanks in advance for making a difference in so many children’s lives this year!

I selected this picture of a Eurasian Eagle Owl because it reminded me of the first teacher I ever knew- my Aunt Marita.  She loved owls and had a jewelry box full of owl necklaces. I think owls look wise, as teachers are, so I always thought that was why she had so many.  Perhaps she only liked them because they were beautiful.  I took this photograph in a bird photography class I recently took. I learned so much in the class. I am thankful for that teacher for this beautiful shot.

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Class!
(1/250 sec., f/6.3, 450 mm, 1600 ISO)

 

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.

Finding the Purpose of (My) Life

I’m starting with the really big questions this week, which always seems to coincide with the end of a vacation in which I get a little breathing room to think big thoughts.  This particular vacation was riddled with laughter and that, too, breaks up the log jams that clog my thinking.  I read a beautiful blog the other day by Robyn Haynes, on her site Big Dreams For A Tiny Garden, entitled Raison D’Être. I highly recommend it.  It got me thinking about the purpose of my own life. That is one of the biggest of all questions.  Why do I exist? For that matter, why do Woodchucks exist? Or Banana Slugs?  I believe there is a purpose for everything (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3:1 and The Mamas and The Papas).   I believe I have led a purpose-driven life. Though I must admit, I could not articulately or completely say exactly what that purpose is.  The truth is that I am a very goal-driven person.  I think my goals revolve around a set of core values and beliefs.  Those in turn are based on what I think the purpose of my life is. For example, one of my core values is equity. One of my core beliefs is that education is at the heart of equity. I believe every single person deserves a free, high quality education which will allow them to achieve all of their life goals regardless of their zip code, their bank account, their religion, their gender, their ethnicity, their language, their fill-in-the-blank… every single person.  But is that my purpose?  In my work, I live that core belief.  Maybe, it is my purpose.  I think about a “purpose” as one of those monolithic, granite monuments of life. I imagine this booming voice thundering from the heavens, “Your purpose, Catherine, is to do everything you can to provide an equitable education to every child!” I can’t really picture that voice saying, “Your purpose, Catherine, is to go grocery shopping.”  How could my purpose be something mundane that everyone has to do?  It must be red carpet, Oscar-worthy stuff, right?  But then it occurred to me that I don’t really know what my purpose is, and I am not sure I can or will ever know my real purpose.  Being an educator is what I think my purpose is.  But I could have it completely wrong.  Maybe being an educator is just a great thing that I love doing and that, hopefully, made a difference in students’ lives. Not only is it possible that this is not my purpose, or maybe not my only purpose, it is also possible that my purpose is something I think is inconsequential, but in the end has a massive and enduring impact.  What if our purpose is more like a small cog in a wheel that drives a machine that changes the world?  What if all the good and bad things that happen in our lives come together to lead us to the exact moment of our true purpose?

Hypothetically (actually this is complete fiction, but I have a point, so stay with me), let’s imagine that I am a business tycoon.  In this fictional world, I have made it my life’s work to develop an eco-friendly construction company. I have a vision that I am passionate about. My purpose is saving the environment while furthering economic development.  I am changing the world with each print of my tiny little carbon foot.  I travel to Arizona where I am pitching my idea for an innovative, energy-efficient office building. While there, I take my clients to lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant where only free-range chickens are served on steamed organic vegetables.  As we are walking to my hybrid, out of nowhere, a Gila Monster attacks.  I am rushed to the hospital in critical condition with the Gila still attached to my leg.  My husband, unfortunately, is traveling in Africa. It takes days for him to arrive at the hospital.  He waits endlessly for a single seat to open on each of his connecting flights.  Days pass, as I slowly recover. Every day, he sits by my side holding my hand. In these quiet hours, we reflect on our lives.  We think about what we have done and what we have not done.  We decide to start a family. Having experienced more than a passing glance at death, we devote ourselves to raising happy, healthy children who are ready to be happy, healthy, independent adults.  They hear our stories through the years and one decides that we were very lucky. Many people would not have had the resources to travel across the globe to get to a loved one when tragedy strikes.  She grows up and starts a foundation devoted to providing free transportation, anywhere in the world, to people who cannot afford to reach their loved ones in emergencies.  On one of those flights sits a young man who travels to a train wreck in South American where his father will eventually pass. Though he is bereft at the loss of his beloved father, he dedicates himself to becoming an engineer and, one day, designs a small bolt with an intricate locking system that will ultimately save millions of lives.

It could happen. Things like this probably happen every day – a chain of seemingly coincidental events that lead us to our ultimate purpose. A purpose we cannot possibly know.  I am not going to stop living what I believe are my purposes in life. I am going to wake up tomorrow no less dedicated to my family, my work or my art.  I am also going to wake up to the possibility that what I think is my purpose- or what I want my purpose to be- may not be my true purpose when all is said and done.  My whole purpose could be something as simple as a kindness said in passing that puts a chain of events in motion that…. And I am OK with that.  I don’t need to know what it is in the end. In the end, I am going to live my life in the best way I know how: love, laugh, learn, lead and lend a hand.  My purpose will take care of itself.

I took this photograph of a Woodchuck one evening while on vacation in Leavenworth. I was relaxing with my friend at her cabin and this little guy scurried across the pasture.  What is the purpose of a Woodchuck? Does it matter?

small brown mammal in a pastureNo Wood Apparently, That’s How Much
(1/500 sec., f/6, 3200 ISO, 450 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Wedded Bliss (and the not so blissful parts that make it truly a blessing….)

Next week, my husband and I will be celebrating 29 years of marriage. As our anniversary rolls around, I find myself thinking back to the year of our wedding.  He proposed to me the weekend I graduated from college.  We were supposed to be apart for the next school year as I moved to Seattle to get my teaching certification.  Fortunately for me with a simple twist of fate, he ended up in Seattle working as well.  So, we have never really been apart for the last 34 years.

Our wedding story is one of my favorite memories. We were married at Our Lady of Sorrow.  That should have given us a clue as to how the year would unfold.  I was going to Seattle U at the time and working graveyard admitting in an emergency room.  Going to school, working and planning a wedding was stressful.  Fortunately, my sisters and stepmom were there to help.  I remember one day I was particularly overwhelmed. My younger sister took me aside and wisely said, “This day is going to happen one time. It is going to come and then it is going be gone.  It’s not going to be perfect. But it is going to be ruined if you worry constantly and forget to enjoy the moment.”  It was great advice and I took it to heart.  The first challenge was dealing with the Church’s mandatory counseling requirement.  We had a difficult time scheduling it with school and work.  Luckily my priest took mercy on us and agreed to meet with us privately.  The first time we showed up at the rectory, we were met by my priest who introduced himself to my husband and then said, “So, you are one of those P religions right? Protestant. Presbyterian.” I am grateful he didn’t add “Pagan”. It just got better from there.  We sat uncomfortably at a small table in the sitting room.  Absentmindedly, the priest looked at his notes and looked up at us and then back down. His words seemed to be stuck in his mouth somewhere. He would start to speak and then swallow the words half-formed. His eyes moved up and to the right like he was testing each phrase out. Finally, he announced, “I’m not really sure why they have me do this.  I’m celibate, you know.  What do I know about marriage?”  We were at a loss for words.  I was mortified when the laughed I was choking back escaped in a rush.  In an odd way, it relaxed us all. He truly did not know what marriage was like. But my husband and I had been together for 5 years.  We had weathered the daily challenges of sharing your life with another person. Some were the mundane things that moved through your life like a tide rolling in and out, heavy and on schedule, like cooking or grocery shopping. Some things were punctuated and jarring like accidents or the illness of parents.  We had spent many nights in the wilderness, alone together. There wasn’t much we hadn’t talked about by then. So I quickly realized this test was not for us.  We had, after all, passed it already. We knew what we were getting into.  We were in love and not in the theoretical sense.  It did not take long for the priest to realize that as well. And so, we slipped into this brief period of meeting where he got to know us as we were.

With all the preparations for the wedding complete, the day finally arrived.  We were getting ready at my father’s home where he had a nursery. The Japanese Maples he grew were a beautiful backdrop for family pictures.  It was a very hot day in July. After much begging, my oldest sister consented to take us all up to get cold drinks.  We got in the car where I immediately attempted to roll down the window.  That is when I got my second-best piece of advice.  I was mid-crank, when my sister told me to roll it back up. I whined, “It is so hot!”  Without missing a beat, she replied, “It hurts to be beautiful. Roll up the window.”  She wasn’t wrong.  It did hurt, but I felt like a princess.  After a tortuous hour of photographs, which our black cat repeatedly photobombed, we were off to the church. I was so glad to be sequestered in the cool basement with my dad.  We sat there in comfortable silence for several minutes.  Suddenly my dad sat bolt upright in his chair and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  He ran out of the basement before I could utter even one word. When the time came, I opened the box holding my bouquet. Taking it in hand, I walked tentatively up the stairs unsure if I my dad would be waiting for me.  As I turned the corner, I was relieved to find him standing there.  He took one look at me and said, “What is that?” It was at that moment that I discovered that the smell of gardenias made my father physically ill. This would have been good information about 6 months earlier. But there we stood, so I did what he taught me to do and told him to “Buck up because I am getting married.”  And I did. Twenty-nine years later, I can still feel the smile on my face, the tears in my eyes and the swell of my heart that I had as I looked into my husband’s eyes and said, “I do”.

Despite the oppressive heat, mischievous black cat, gardenia aversion, quirky priest and ominous ‘Our Lady of Sorrow’, that day was perfect to me. When I think back on the last 34 years, there have been far more perfect days than not.  Thirty-four years. It is hard to believe so much time has passed – so much shared history lived. We’ve shared 68 birthdays between us. We have held each other as grandparents, parents, and friends have passed.  We celebrated milestones and weathered disappointments hand in hand. We have picked up the slack and given each other grace.  We held hands when our child was born. We have argued and made up.  We have laughed until we cried. We have done all the mundane yet stressful work of living and raising a family.  Coming through the not-so-perfect days together is bliss itself.  Marriage isn’t always easy. In my experience, it’s not endless days of wine and roses.  It is knowing someone knows you better than anyone else and loves you for everything you are – everything.  It is knowing that person has your back – always. It is knowing that love shared, in the end, will always dwarf the stress, fear, grief, and pain inevitable in this life.  It is knowing that you are linked together and part of a greater chain connecting you to your greater family, your children and your community of friends.  All of that is wedded bliss, truly.

wedding

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.

Nothing Left Unsaid

I thought this post would be easier to write.  I realize that no matter how carefully chosen, my words will likely be inadequate. It is ironic since I have entitled this “Nothing Left Unsaid”, and yet, surely, there will be something left unsaid. I went to a celebration of life this week for a truly wonderful woman.  Those closest to her, her family and friends, spoke about what a joyful, giving, compassionate person she was.  It was an outpouring of love that mirrored the love she showed for others.  If light could take a corporeal form, it would be her.  She lived her convictions undeterred by what was trendy. She wasn’t distracted by the shiny objects which hide the much-prized of little worth.  It was obvious in the words of her family and closest friends that she knew what was important- them. It was also obvious that this was no secret between them.  Though I can’t be sure, I think very little was left unsaid. Love expressed and shared.  Faith embraced and lived.  Comfort given and accepted.  Forgiveness and thanks shared in equal measure.  All the little things in life that, in the end, are the biggest things – shared.

At times like this, I find myself taking inventory.  Not comparing one life to another, but really asking myself what I could learn from this moment and what I have learned from this person. In this instance as I thought about my own life, though I have said so very many words, I know I have left much unsaid. There have been gifts which may have been small to the giver but were enormous to me. Yet I know my thanks was a lamb when it should have been a lion.  I am sure I assumed, on more than one occasion, people knew how I felt. In my youth, I was too proud or afraid of appearing weak to show the true depths of my appreciation.  Sometimes I just waited too long and the time or the person passed.  I don’t think I ever came right out and told my father-in-law how much I loved that he let my daughter lead him around by the hand where ever she wanted to go, or how he would get on the floor and play with her until his laughter turned to tears. I hope my grandpa knew he was my hero, but I wish I would have said it loud and often.   I know I didn’t tell my sister (until today) how full my heart was to know that she stayed up all night in the waiting room on the night of my daughter’s birth.  I need to thank the superintendent who let me golf with the guys, despite my hopeless game, because he didn’t want me left out of the conversations.  I wish I had told my college professor that he changed the course of my life by giving me the chance to teach a chemistry lab.  I wish I had told the nun who hugged me every morning in second grade that I loved coming to school because of her. I wished I had thanked the APs who were looking out for me when I was looking out for everyone else.  I wish I had told my principal that I was a better teacher and a better person for having known him.

I am better at this now. Better.  I think my girls know I love them and I am grateful for the community we have built together.  I know I don’t hold anything back at home. I am intentional about gratitude. I try to remember how important it is to acknowledge hard work, talent and teamwork.  Perhaps it is age. Perhaps it is experiencing all of life’s big moments- good and bad.  I know I can do better though.  Here is the thing:  we do not know the number of our days.  The things that matter are not things at all.  In the words of Ram Dass, “We are all just walking each other home.”  What matters is what happens between us.  It’s time to say the things that have been left unsaid.

This is a picture of my husband and daughter sharing a moment on the beach at Kalaloch. I was trailing behind them, mesmerized as they explored the tide pools and talked.  We were heading back in. He threw her up over his shoulders and she clung to his head.  They know this is my favorite picture of them. They also know how much I love them because I never let that go unsaid.

Father and daughter on the beach

The Best Seat in the House
(1/640 sec., f/5.6, 9.2mm, 100 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

What the Best Coaches Know

Despite sitting at one of those back-bending cafeteria tables, I found myself completed enthralled listening to a coach talk about his athletes this week.  He spoke with such heart about the journey the team took together to win the state championship. He talked about each athlete’s strengths and contributions to the team.  He talked about the absolute commitment that these fierce young women made to each other and to their goal. I was reminded of the power, that we all have, to make a lasting impact on other people’s lives.  We just need to remember what the best coaches know.

The best coaches (and I would argue the best leaders, the best bosses, the best teachers and the best parents) know that people will do anything for love- love for the team, love for the game, love for each other. Athletes will get up at the crack of dawn. They will practice for hours on end. They will fail more often than they succeed and yet not give up.  They will smile even when it hurts. They will lift each other up and dust each other off.  They will test their physical and emotional limits knowing there is a wall of strength behind them. The best coaches know everyone counts and everyone contributes.  The best coaches know that every single person plays a role.  The best coaches know that believing is seeing. The best coaches know that the sweetest victories are the ones hard-fought by athletes who refuse to surrender.  The best coaches know that everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The best coaches know that you only grow when you are challenged. The best coaches know that steel is made with fire and diamonds under pressure, but both need to be polished.

I took this photograph last fall. I had been watching a flock of Great Blue Heron nesting on the Everett waterfront through the summer. The fledglings were grown and learning to hunt in the tide off shore.  The older bird in front seemed to be showing the younger ones what to do, just like a good coach.

birds

Fishing Lessons
(1/125 sec., f/6.3, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Warm Welcome and A Wiggling Butt

If you visit our house, you will get a warm welcome from the four-legged creatures and, of course, the two-legged ones.  Buttercup, our two-year-old Boxer (or The Toddler as we affectionately call her), monitors the door vigilantly.  One must be prepared, after all, as friends can appear without notice.  As soon as she hears someone approach, she trots to the door and waits to determine who has come to call (“on her” is implied- I mean why else would someone come to the door?)  This seems very important to her.  Unless you are her friend Lucas who she mauls with love on arrival, she looks everyone over very intently and then heads for the living room to pick out just the right toy for the person and occasion.  As a Boxer, her tail is docked so she has to put in extra effort to let you know that you are getting the wag.  It’s not unusual for her head and behind to connect in her frenzied wagging.  Her body takes on the shape of a comma making it difficult to travel in a straight line so she generally meanders sideways sometimes bumping into walls, sometimes going full circle.  Though we have tried to train her well, if she really likes you or you show any inclination for permissive parenting, she will jump on you and give you a big kiss.

Her warm greeting, with accompanying wiggling butt, are not reserved solely for visitors.  She greets her whole family this way.   Being welcomed home by Buttercup  is a great way to end your day. She doesn’t want to talk about it or “process” anything. She is just so glad you are alive and that you came home – again!  She acts like you’ve been gone forever, and she missed you so much. Buttercup lives in the moment and knows what is important.  Right now, right here, you are with her.  What could be better?  The potential is immense.  You might rub her ears. You might play fetch with her. You might snuggle her.  There might be a treat hidden somewhere on your person. Who cares about the minor disagreement you had this morning over the “missing” sock or refusing to come inside for breakfast?  Who cares if you tried to wedge yourself under the new fence yesterday?   That is in the past. Right now, she has a ball (or lamb or squirrel or beaver or octopus) and she has you.  She knows a hug heals. She knows play and laughter are  good medicine. She knows what is happening right now is what matters right now.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we took a cue from our canine (or feline) family members and greeted each other with a little more enthusiasm?  You don’t have to bring a toy (unless you want to – no judgment) but what if we brought unadulterated joy at seeing each other?  What if we let things go a little more easily? What is we tuned out rehashing the past and worrying about the future long enough to enjoy each other’s company?  I think it’s time we figured out the human equivalent of wagging our tails and let people know, unequivocally, that we are so glad they are here.

Here’s what I came home to today. Aren’t I lucky?
(The blog picture is Buttercup breaking into a photoshoot with my daughter. She hates to be left out.)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Mistake a Flower for a Weed

On a hot day in July in 1984 in Fairbanks, Alaska, I met the man, for the second time, who would become my husband.   I had been baling hay on a Thoroughbred farm just northeast of Fairbanks that day. Fairbanks in the summer is beautiful. It is sunny and light all day. The landscape is breathtaking and teeming with wildlife.   (Actually, it is beautiful year around in Fairbanks, but Mother Nature doesn’t actively try to kill you in the summer.)  I had been sent to town to pick up supplies for a trip to Anchorage.  The farm was shipping a horse to Seattle and picking up a Shire coming in on a barge.  I was going along to share the driving which would be slow on the Parks Highway hauling a horse trailer. Baling is dusty work and I was covered in it.   I think in any other state, a man would disregard (perhaps even run in the opposite direction of) a woman clad in hay-covered cowboy boots, Levi’s and a t-shirt.  Not so in Alaska. When I saw that red and silver Ford F150 with a chrome package, I stopped to watch it pass. I knew that truck and it was a thing of beauty.  I racked my brain to remember his name. Apparently, I also employed the snapping and pointing technique to aid in remembering, because he stopped when his passenger noticed and informed him that a girl was pointing at him.  (Who knew?! All you have to do is point at a guy!!) He stopped, and I remembered his name. Just one year had passed since I met him in his hometown of Skagway, Alaska, and yet he seemed like a completely different person. Shallow, I know, but he seemed so much more handsome to me.  I think it was the beard and mustache he grew in that year living in Fairbanks.  Such a little thing to change my whole picture of him. He was the same guy- funny, kind, strong, adventurous – just with more hair.  Though I gave him my phone number, I really did not expect him to call.  Remember, I was covered in dust from riding behind the baler and stacking bales.  I probably had horse hooky on my boots and grass in my hair.  It wasn’t my most attractive moment.  But call, he did, and we spent the summer getting to know each other. (I also spent the summer transferring from the University of Georgia to the University of Alaska, but that is another story.) He would come out to the farm after work and hang around as I did the evening feeding. He wasn’t a horse-guy but he liked being outdoors and he liked being with me. So, he learned.  He learned that horses bite. He learned that breeding horses takes many hands especially if you have an 18-month-old Shire stud (the equivalent of a 2000-pound toddler).  On the weekends, he would even help me move the mares and foals to the pasture. We talked and learned all of those things you learn when you are first dating someone.  We talked about the big things like our families. We talked about the little things like our favorite colors.  His was purple and so I took to cutting some beautiful purple flowers I found growing wild near the farm.  Every day, I would bring them to him when he came down the road to the farm.  It got to be a thing. I would give him stalks of purple flowers and then a kiss.  I thought they were the most beautiful flowers with their tall stalks swollen with purple buds. In my 18-year-old heart, they were the expression of my growing love for this man.  They were everywhere – on the side of the road, on the edge of the meadow. No work at all, they just grew bold and plump.  One day, I gave him a bouquet and he said to me, “You know those are weeds, right? They’re called Fireweed.” Twenty-year-old guys are often accidentally insensitive.  He was stating a fact.  I was crushed. Weeds?!?  They were so beautiful and, seriously, did he not get it? I was giving him flowers. They were his favorite color.  I am sure my face told the whole story, because he quickly back-peddled and pronounced their beauty despite their obvious lack of pedigree.

The fact is that weeds are just flowers that grow where you don’t want them too.  Sometimes their beauty is missed because they are inconvenient or not what we wanted. Those flowers were beautiful to me. They still are.  As a transplant myself, I didn’t know that they were weeds. I just saw them for what they were- lush, colorful blooms standing tall and proud.  I would have taken a garden of them.  It is a good thing that we did not apply the “weed theory” to each other or we might have missed the last 34 years together.  I certainly looked like a weed standing in the parking lot of the Safeway in Fairbanks Alaska covered in hay dust.  I definitely did not feel like a flower in that moment, but he must have seen a flower. He was the same man I met in Skagway, albeit beardless, but I missed him completely that first time.  I am so glad I got a second chance because he was definitely not a weed.

I found these Lupine growing wild outside of Newhalem and they reminded me of that summer.

DSC_2899Lupine
(1/1000 sec., f/4.2, 65mm, 720 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Change is hard but not changing is harder…

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

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

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

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

 

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Coaching at Granite Falls High School circa 1992

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

 

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?

 

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Learning to Walk

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth About Lying

My dad had a second story apartment in the Casa Del Rey overlooking Broadway.  I would visit him on the weekends and we would walk up the street to the corner QFC to buy food for dinner.  He was on the road every week it seemed, so he didn’t keep much on hand.  It was so different from our suburban neighborhood in north Seattle.  People filled the streets on Saturday night, spilling off the sidewalk and crossing in between the slow-moving cars.  No one seemed to mind the chaos.  The colors and sounds and smells billowed thick from the bars and restaurants.  Men with gravity-defying hair wore headbands of soft leather ornately beaded.  Bright silks and faded denim flashed through the crowd. Bell-bottomed women glided footless across the cement.  No linen shifts, pumps or bouffant hair constrained their movements.  Loud conversations and acoustic guitars grabbed my attention.  My head swung right and left though I held tight to his hand and march quickly forward two steps to every one of his.  When we got back to the apartment, I would lie in the bay window, chin in my palms watching the strange world go by.  He would cook dinner and ask about my school.  His favorite was a broiled steak with fresh steamed spinach leaves.  He dripped lemon juice on the spinach and topped it off with butter.  He would always have warm, sourdough rolls.  After dinner, we would talk.  He had a weakness for ice cream, so we would often venture out for a scoop in a waffle cone.

Being at my dad’s house was so different than my mom’s.  My mom’s house was a house of women and girls.  There was really no trace of masculinity left in the place.  Even when my grandfather visited, he seemed a bit out of place, an interloper among the panty hose and Dippity Doo.  I was particularly interested in my dad’s bathroom which was where he dropped his shaving kit when he got home from a trip. I don’t remember him ever really unpacking the contents. It just sat there perched on the side of the sink- dark scuffed leather, unzipped and gaping open.  I could see his toothbrush and toothpaste, his dental floss and razor, and, best of all, his shaving cream.  Girls did not have shaving cream back then.  It was a mystery.  I had seen my dad shave before, his face covered in the thick, white waves.  He would crane his neck as he drug the razor upward toward his chin.   I wondered if it was like whipped cream or meringue somehow, as those were the only things I had to compare it to.  The can was tipped on its side and the cap long lost.  A tiny bit of gel seeped from the nozzle.  I could see it was green.  I shut the bathroom door knowing he would never walk in on me and I took out the can. It was metal with words in shiny black and green.  I touched the top of the nozzle and jumped as it erupted into my little hand. It was so pretty- white with ribbons of green and blue.  It expanded there in my hands.  I was worried at first that it might not stop but it did.  I could not resist doing it again.  I wanted to put some on my cheek to see what it would feel like, but I thought that might only be for boys.    I certainly did not want to become one of those.  But it was strangely satisfying to push the top and spray it on the edges of the sink. I ran my fingers through it making curvy lines and coaxed it into waves.  I pushed again, and nothing happened. I knew right then that I was in big trouble.  I started to run water in the sink, but the foam got bigger.  I put some in my hands and dropped it in the trash.  It took some doing and not a small amount of prayers before I got the mess cleaned up (I figured God would not want me to get in trouble when He created everything which included this very tempting shaving cream).

My dad, I should mention, was not gullible. He used to tell me he had been around the block.  I didn’t know what that meant exactly but I thought it must be like school because he knew a lot.  After my protracted trip to the bathroom, I put on my most innocent look and held my breath.  He coincidentally needed to use the bathroom right after me at which time he discovered that all of his shaving cream had disappeared.  I knew I was caught.  He sat me on the couch and asked me what happened to his shaving cream.  I quickly told him that I did not know.  He looked me in the eye and in a quiet voice said, “Cathy, there is going to come a day, not too many years from now, when you are going to want me to trust you. You are going to want me to trust you to drive a car or go on a date or go off with your friends alone to the movies.  I have to be able to trust you. That trust is built in times like this.”  My lip was quivering by then. Tears stung my eyes.  I knew I had disappointed him.  I knew I had lied.  And I sure didn’t want to go on a date, but I had been in a car and knew I wanted one of those.  My dad sounded so serious.  “You and I are the only ones in this apartment. Tell me the truth,” he said.  And I confessed, sobbing.  He held me tight and told me everything was going to be all right.  He told me that lying to people and to yourself could get to be a habit. It is hard for people who lie to keep all those lies straight.  He wanted me to become someone with integrity (which he made me look up in the biggest dictionary I had ever seen.)  The last thing he said was to always remember, “The truth will set you free.”  He was right.  It was a small sin using up all of his shaving cream and lying about it.  It probably wouldn’t have propelled me into a life of crime.  But it was the most stressful 15 minutes of my short life to that point.  It was a painful lesson at the time but no doubt he saved from far more painful ones.  It wasn’t the last mistake I made by a long shot. But he was right then. And he would be right now.  The truth really will set you free.

I picked this photograph for this post because it really feels like freedom to me.

Skagit River with boulders and trees
The Skagit Wild
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Evidence of a Well Spent Youth

This morning I awoke before my alarm.  I rolled onto my right shoulder and felt that familiar ache from the base of my clavicle to my shoulder joint.  I knew once I got moving, it would loosen up.   I’m at that age where I swear I can pull a muscle while asleep.  It’s disconcerting.  Of course, this was not from one of my mysterious sleep injuries. I earned this pain the hard way.  It happened Labor Day Weekend 1998 on the Sunday before school opened. It was my first principalship and I probably should have been in the office, but I was in dire need of burning off some nervous energy.  I was going to be following probably the best principal I knew, and she was going to be my superintendent. I was feeling the pressure.   I definitely needed to clear my head and the best way I knew how was to get on my bike and ride as fast as I could.  I was 25 miles in and about a mile from my Jeep when I experienced firsthand the design flaw in my new bike pump.  It was made to fit snugly under the top tube without a clamp or strap. And it did.  For 25 miles.  And then it didn’t.  The pump slipped off the tube and fell downward as my feet, securely clamped to the pedals, came around and swept it into the chain wheel.   No longer able to rotate and move the bike forward, physics prevailed, and I flew over the handle bars.  With extensive experience falling off things, I tucked my head, hit the pavement with my right shoulder and tried to roll through.  Unfortunately, my brand-new cleats did not release immediately, and I briefly remained attached to the bike as it flew over me.  As it hit the pavement, I was drug along with it, shredding my skin from shoulder to knee.  Much to my embarrassment, this was all witnessed by two guys who looked like legitimate contenders for the Tour de France.  They were very sweet and offered to call an ambulance. I declined, brushing as much of the dirt and gravel off my bloody skin as I could.  Before riding off, one of the cyclists remarked, “Man, she’s good at crashing!”  I probably should have been offended but I am good at it. I had a lot of practice as a kid.  I take pride in only having ever broken one bone.  The bike was a loss as was my helmet (always wear a helmet!).  I unsuccessfully tried to wrench the handlebars in the general direction of the front tire in hopes that I could ride the short distance to my Jeep. No luck. I pulled out my phone to call my husband.  He understandably kept his phone nearby when I was out on the road.  I told him that I thought I might have broken my collarbone and was headed to the hospital.  I threw my bike over my left shoulder and made my way to the parking lot.

My husband has spent his fair share of time in emergency rooms and it has rarely been for him. I like having him there. He’s pretty funny when I am injured, and it takes my mind off the pain.  This time, they put us in a bay with gurneys separated only by curtains. I was explaining my accident to the doctor as he debrided my shoulder, hip and knee.  My husband was entertaining us teasing me about my propensity for falling off things.  I could hear an older couple in the bay next to us.  The man had been building something in his garage when he hit his thumb with a hammer, crushing it.  I could tell he was in a lot of pain and his wife was clearly frustrated with the time it was taking to treat him.  Personally, I thought things were going pretty quickly for an emergency room on a Sunday on a holiday weekend.  I expected to wait hours just to get in the room.  When the doctor finished the tedious job of picking the gravel out of my skin, we were left alone, and I was laughing at how ridiculous the whole thing was.  We were taken aback when the wife in the “room” next to us pulled the curtain aside and exclaimed “Honestly, don’t you think you are a little too old for this?!”  I am not sure if she meant that we were being too silly or that I shouldn’t be out on a bike. Either way, I replied, “Apparently not because here I am.”  She huffed and quickly dragged the curtain back.  We just could not help it. We broke out in laughter.  Maybe it was latent immaturity.  Maybe it was shock from the debriding.  I think mostly it was the realization that I was out doing something I loved and, even if I got hurt, I would not have changed a thing.  I hoped in that moment that I would never be to old to ride my bike.

My shoulder is not the only thing that aches, trust me. Would I like my body to feel like it did at 15?  Oh yes, I would.  Who wouldn’t?  But I have had an amazing, active life. God willing, I will continue to.  I really would not trade a thing. I have some great stories about my escapades going back decades. Every scar, every break, every ache and every pain is the story of my life. They are the stories of my courage. They are the stories of my follies.  They are evidence of my good judgment and bad. They are dusting myself off and getting back on the horse.  They are my successes and my failures. They are evidence of my well spent youth.

This photograph was taken on my iPhone in 2014 at the Tour de Blast ride up Mt. St. Helens.  It was my birthday ride that year.  We didn’t go all of the way to the top but we went far enough up to scream “Weeeeeeee!”  as we raced all the way back down. There were no emergency room visits that day.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, speak.  If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. He is an extraordinary individual who really embodies the power and resilience of the human spirit. At the end of his speech, he said something that was both so profound and so obvious that I couldn’t decide if I should shout “Amen” or slap myself on my forehead.  I know that I will not say this as eloquently as he did, so I am paraphrasing here. He said that, in reaction to his story, people would often say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Then one day, someone pointed out, ‘That maybe true, but you can make him thirsty. All you have to do is give him a little salt.’  Manny Scott was honoring the teacher who changed his life by making him thirst for learning. What a powerful thing it is to ignite a passion in someone that makes them thirst to learn.  The best teachers and coaches know just how to do this.  For that matter, the best parents and bosses do as well.  I think it takes just one person in your life to change your whole trajectory. One person who sees all that you can be. One person who sees your gifts not your challenges.  One person who knows you have it in you to do the hard work – someone who can see a future you cannot yet even imagine. I have had more than my fair share of these people pass through my life. But it all started 45 years ago when I entered second grade and found out I was smart.

I attended a small Catholic school north of Seattle.  Though you might imagine nuns with severe hairstyles, stern looks and inflexible rules, I was taught by nuns who hugged and played guitar. (One even wore Go-Go boots occasionally.)  I liked school. It was predictable.  Not much of the rest of my life at the time was. My parents had divorced loudly.  My mom was struggling to manage entering the workforce and raise four little girls. In the wisdom of Family Court circa 1970, I only saw my dad every other weekend.   But I trusted my teachers, so I did not question them when I was moved to a special classroom.  They explained, in gentle tones, that I was having trouble reading and needed extra help. Apparently, that was early code for Special Education.  I took their tests, packed up my school supplies and moved across the hall. I’m not really sure how my dad found out about this unfortunate turn of events. But he did. When he called to tell me that he was taking me out for lunch alone, I knew something serious was about to happen. He always took me out to lunch when he had something serious to say.  I remember sitting across from him in the booth, my legs sticking to the Naugahyde, hoping that the waitress would take her time getting to us.  Nothing serious could be said before we ordered.  Once the drinks were served, my dad launched in.  He was a big man with a big personality who seemed to take over the room.  He was very animated and, at first, I thought he was mad at me. Then I realized he was mad at the nuns which was utterly shocking. Surely, it was some kind of a sin to be angry at a nun.  Surely, they could not have done something wrong.  Then I realized what was going on. He was angry that they had put me in a special classroom. He told me that he had insisted that they do an IQ test (whatever that was) which apparently showed that I was smart.  I almost couldn’t understand what he was saying. After all, I wasn’t a very good reader.  But here he was telling me that I was smart. That I could read. That I would read well and someday I would go to college.  He told me that the nuns had made a mistake which was going to be rectified.  I couldn’t wait to find out what rectified meant.  I just hoped it didn’t mean that the nuns would be mad at me. He was so sure. And he made me believe in that instance that I was just as smart as everyone else, maybe even smarter.  He told me I had to work hard just like everyone else and, if I did, then I could do anything.  The next day, I packed my school supplies and walked across the hall. I never looked back. I could not wait to read something, anything, everything.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if he had not been in my corner. I did need extra help in school.  But I needed a lot less once I believed that I could learn. I was willing to work a lot harder once I knew that there was no ceiling to my potential.  It changed everything for me. I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate.  He led me to the water and made me thirsty to learn.  We all have the ability to do this. There are people in our lives who need a leg up. They need to see their possibilities through our eyes.  Give them a little salt. Trust me. They’ll drink.

I chose this photograph because, as I was photographing an elk herd, this young elk split off from the herd to chase down a couple of elk who were heading toward the highway. Literally, he led them back to the water.

Hey Come Back!

Hey, Come Back!
(1/50 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You’re Never Too Old for a Little Joy

I found myself sifting through old Easter pictures this week.  It’s not surprising really. I often find myself looking back when holidays roll around. This is one of my favorite Easter pictures.  I keep a copy on my desk.  My daughter was three in this picture and the youngest of a herd of kids at my sister’s house for the holiday.  My sister always put on amazing holiday feasts and welcomed family and friends to her home.  On this particular Easter, she filled a rainbow of plastic eggs with chocolates and hid them all around her yard. They filled six baskets in the end.  With a little help from her older cousins, my daughter had a full basket to herself.  She chased the older kids around and they were so sweet to help her find the eggs.  In the end, she was completely bushed.  She crouched down in the middle of the driveway holding her chubby little cheeks up in both hands and waited for the day to end.

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No More Candy:  Easter 2003
(1/500 sec., f/9, 100 ISO, 20.3 mm)

As I sorted through the pictures though, I was reminded of what an adventure it is to have a three-year-old. They are so unguarded. They just feel. And they let you know in so many ways what they are feeling. That day, she went through every possible mood and I captured them all. What was astounding though was that every change in mood was punctuated with joy. She giggled and laughed. She chased the other kids and ran with glee when they chased her.  She bubbled when her cousin let her play with her dolls. She glowed when they took her hand.  When one found an egg, he made it seem like a big glorious discovery and she squealed.  When she ate, she chomped away like it was the best thing she ever ate. She did everything with joy. Oh sure, she cried that day. She scowled that day.  I was pretty sure she might even get sick that day. But in between were priceless moments of unadulterated joy.

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Joyful
(1/250 sec., f/10, 100 ISO, 24 mm)

I think sometimes, as adults, we forget to revel in the joy of the moment. I don’t mean the big moments- like births and weddings and birthdays.  Those are definitely joyful.  I mean connecting with joyful moments as often as we can.  (You know you are doing this enough, by the way, if your teenager finds you just a little embarrassing.)  Sometimes you have to work joy into your life.  Sometimes it just appears.  Every spring when I take the top off my Jeep, no matter how cold it is, I go for a long drive with the music up loud and get an ice cream cone.  It’s might seem silly. But I love that feeling of wind in my hair and a soundtrack made just for me.  It makes me feel young and free- even if it is only for 50 miles.  It is extra joyful when my daughter joins me.  I like getting up in early in the morning, cranking up the tunes and working out- pure joy.  I am filled with joy when my teenager comes in at the end of the day to tell me all about her’s- yup simple joy.  I love getting up at the crack of dawn with my husband and driving into the mountains. Uninterrupted, easy conversation with the man I have loved for 34 years- pure joy.  Sitting by the firepit with friends and family.  Tackling a really complicated job.  Spending a couple of hours catching up with my friends. Creating something beautiful.  Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy.  Sometimes as adults, we get bogged down in all of our responsibilities, plans, and schedules.  We forget to be present. That is when we miss the joy.  There are ups and downs certainly.  In fact, 2018 has been a struggle so far in our house. But the truth is that in between all of those little challenges, we have had a lot of joy. I am glad I did not miss it. I hope you will stop and feel the joy.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Grandpa’s House

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things was spending the night at my grandparents’ house. They lived in a small house on Queen Anne Hill. Though back then, from my tiny eyes, it was an enormous mansion.  It was so different from our cookie-cutter suburban rambler in north Seattle.  When we visited, we would have to drive around until we found a place to park on the street.  If we got a spot right in front, my mom would say, “God wanted us to visit.”  I wasn’t convinced God was directly in charge of parking, but I kept that to myself because I was pretty sure He always wanted us to visit them.  They had a tiny, steeply sloped front yard that my Grandpa mowed with a rotary cutter.  I loved the sound of the blades slicing past each other as they neatly trimmed the yard. Even on the hottest day, he would be out there in a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt rolled up to reveal forearms made thick and sinewy from decades of throwing fish.  Wide concrete steps led to a porch with a thick rail that I loved to perch on while watching the city street.  The house was a rich brown and covered in shingle siding.  It was old, and I was fascinated by the door knobs, light switches and outlets.   Right inside the front door there was a shiny cabinet that housed his record player.  On Sunday nights after dinner, he would listen to the news. Back then, it was filled with grainy, black and white images of the Vietnam war.  I did not understand what was happening at the time, but I knew I wasn’t to talk until the stern voice of Walter Cronkite faded away. As soon as it was over, Grandpa would lift the lid on the cabinet and turn on the record player.  We had to wait for him to gently drop the needle on the well-worn groves of Never on a Sunday.  To the scratchy tune and my laughter, he would dance me around the room, arms raised high overhead, knees bouncing upward, feet crossing over and back. I wanted to hold onto those moments so much as a child.  He had a big heart.  I felt so connected to him. He was the rare adult that got me. He could tell when I was sad or scared and seemed to always know just the right thing to do. That was especially true when my parents divorced with spectacular animosity.  I remember feeling like he held me closer through those years.  I didn’t act out.  I wanted everything and everyone to be OK.  I grasped with tiny fingers any chance to make things peaceful.  I think he knew that. He was especially gentle with me. I remember one night after we were all in bed, I heard a moaning sound through the heat vent.  I lay completely still in the dark before moving silently to the center of the bed because, of course, monsters couldn’t reach the center of the bed.  When the moaning came again, I leapt out of bed and woke him up.  I remember he reached for his glasses and I was momentarily shocked that he didn’t sleep with them on.  He patiently sat up and listened. He gave me a big hug and put me back in bed.  He told me not to worry. And I didn’t, because I knew I could count on him.  He left the house from the back door and I could hear him in the basement.  I had been in the basement to help grandma with the wash before. It was dark, cold and scary. I knew for sure he was a hero if he could go down there in the dark in the middle of the night.  A little while passed before he came back in.  He told me everything was fine. He took me by the hand and led me to the basement.  On the floor was an apple box full of kittens.  The mama was watching us from the windowsill. He told me that the babies had just been born and the sound I heard was the mama.  I probably would have believed him if he had just told me that everything was fine and sent me back to bed. I was glad he took the time to show me.

My grandpa lived a simple life. He loved big and loud and true.  He hugged with gusto and danced with abandon. He was the solid part of my quicksand life. I learned so much from him: Sometimes a hug is all you need. Dance when you can and do it like no one is watching.  Ouzo cures many ills.  Listening is more important than speaking.  Action speaks louder than words. Be patient and kind to children because they might not know much but they feel everything.

29a Jimmy Paris 1957

My Grandpa Jimmy Paris (Dimitri Heramanos Paraskevoulakos)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

My daughter is a junior this year. She is our only child. The good Lord blessed us with only one child but, in so doing, He blessed us every single day after.  In just over a year, she will leave us to go off to college and start this new adventure. The part of her life where she becomes an adult independent of us.  Every day I fight the primal urge to cover her in bubble wrap leaving holes only so that she can breathe.  I want to protect her from the world. I want her to have a life without ever feeling pain or loss.  But of course, this is not possible.  She has, in fact, experienced pain and loss already.   And the truth is that you cannot know great love and not know great loss.  You cannot have great happiness and not have great grief.  You cannot appreciate your successes without experiencing some failures. Some days, I feel like Nemo’s dad: protective, fearful and powerless.  I also know Dory was right when she told him, “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” (https://ohmy.disney.com/movies/2015/04/23/9-dory-quotes-deeper-than-the-drop-off/)  And yes, I am aware that I just used a Disney animated film as a literary reference.  What can I say? There was at least a decade when animated films were my only cultural outlet.  At any rate, Dory is right.  As a parent, I have done my absolute best, first to keep this tiny human alive and then help her grow into a capable adult. I believe to my core that it is my responsibility to help her to become a strong, independent adult.  I know that this means walking that fine line of letting her make her own mistakes and dust herself off and wrapping her in a bear hug while wiping her tears.  I am aware, as every parent is I’m sure, that I have fallen short at times. Despite this, she has become a strong, smart, compassionate, talented young woman.  I also know these are tumultuous times to be a teenager.  Whatever your politics, I think we can agree there is much strife in the world.  It can be a scary, unpredictable place. I want her to find her voice, her place in the world.  I want her to live her convictions.  Meanwhile, every day she is bombarded with media, popular and social.  The world is literally at her fingertips.  She has never known a time when the knowledge that is power was not hers for the searching.  It is so much for a young heart and mind to navigate.  When I look at her and her friends, I am so hopeful about the future.  It is in the hands of courageous, creative, compassionate people. But I will hold my breath and pray, because one of those is my baby. A single voice in a powerful chorus.  A fragile human testing the frontline of change.

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My Heart
(1/30 sec., f/4.2, 560 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Rub Some Dirt On It

Let me just say at the outset, I know that this story is going to reveal with lights and sirens the unhealthy relationship I have (or had) with my Jeep, Angus.  Yes, I named it. Don’t judge.  We were together for 10 years.  A couple of weeks ago, I wrecked Angus.  It was the one and only snowy workday morning of the winter.  I think snow is the most beautiful type of weather. Snow makes my heart happy. If I know it is going to snow overnight, I hop out of bed extra early in the morning to look out the window hoping for a thick blanket of white powder.   I am cheerful when I get the ‘two hours late’ phone tree call.  When I was teaching, I even made my freshman science students do a snow dance whenever the forecast called for snow.  I convinced them that I had learned the snow dance in Alaska.  (Freshman are gullible and generally willing to do silly things.)

I left my house a little later than normal hoping some of the ice and snow would clear. School was two hours late and my daughter was snuggled up to our two boxers.  She didn’t wake up to say goodbye.  The boxers had the decency to make eye contact but made no effort to move from their revered and toasty spots.  Just as I was leaving, my husband texted me to tell me to avoid the Lowell Rd.  It is a windy road cut in a hillside along the valley and my preferred method of getting to work. He knows how much I love to drive on country roads.  I have put a few icy miles under my wheels.  I went to university in Fairbanks, so I know how to get out of a spin.  I had a lot of practice.  Until this fateful day though, I had never been in an accident.   I was driving well under the speed limit, gearing down as I approached the stop lights.  I gave everyone lots of room.  When I came to a small dip in the road, I hit a massive patch of ice.  You always hear that your life passes before your eyes in these moment.  Time definitely slowed down drawing out those terrifying seconds.  My first thought as my rear axle whipped around behind me was “This is gonna leave a mark.”  I grabbed the gearshift so hard one of my fingernails popped right off my pinky finger. It all happened in slow motion. My glasses flew off my face and hit the windshield. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my coffee cup exiting its holder in the console and splashing across the passenger door.  As I traveled across the other lane of traffic, I briefly made eye contact with the wide-eyed driver of an oncoming car. Fortunately, I slid right in front of him. I hopped the curb taking out a fence and landing on a power pole.  I sat there for a moment at a loss of what to do. The glass on the passenger side was shattered and through the gaping hole I could see a little snow-covered lake.  It looked serene and I was so grateful I was not submerged in it.  The 911 operator was very patient with me.  Once she determined I was not hurt, she said “No one is coming for you.  There are just too many injury accidents.”  That should have been my first clue as to just how lucky I was.  I wasn’t hurt.  Not a scratch. I did not hurt anyone else.  But I was rip roaring mad.  I put Angus in 4 low, pulled us off the fence and headed home.  I was standing teary-eyed in the driveway staring at the crushed hard top and dented quarter panel when the wrecker came to tow him away.  Even though my insurance company was unbelievably helpful, I still felt like I wanted to throw a temper tantrum worthy of a nap-deprived three-year-old.  “I don’t want a rental car! I want my Jeep back. Don’t tow Angus away!”  Eventually I got a grip.  That lasted just until a man whose title is “Total Loss Evaluator” called.  (What kind of title is that! Why don’t they just call him the Automotive Grim Reaper?!)  In my defense, everyone kept telling me the Angus could be rebuilt.  It never occurred to me he was never coming home again.  I’m not proud to say it, but it is the truth:  I moped. I whined. I complained. I hate buying cars. Angus was everything I wanted in a Jeep.  I didn’t want to deal with finding a new one.

In the midst of this crisis, my life went on – another clue as to how lucky I was.  I was visiting a school (which I had driven to with great annoyance in the three-bedroom SUV I rented) when I noticed a staff member carrying a very large wheeled back pack, certainly too large for a child to carry. I asked her what it was for as she stacked it among 15 others of the same style.  She told me that the backpacks were filled with food by the staff and a local church for children to take home for their families who had no food on the weekends.  The students were bringing them back that day so that they could be refilled for the next Friday.  It instantly brought tears to my eyes to think of children going a weekend without food. But of course, they do. Not just in my home town but all over this country.  The staff member shared that the children were so thankful every week and that they had a much greater need than they could fill each week.  I felt so ashamed to have made such a production about a Jeep.   I wasn’t hurt. I did not hurt anyone else. I had insurance.  I could afford to buy a new Jeep.  While I was standing in my driveway in the snow staring at my totaled Jeep, there was a child waiting to pick up a backpack of food for his or her family.  My dad would have told me to ‘rub some dirt on it, suck it up and do the right thing’. He would have been right.  I should have spent my outrage on something that really mattered like kids who have real needs they have no control over.  There are so many needs in our communities. None of us can do everything. But each of us can do something.  I bet your local school has a program like this one.

 

The photograph below was taken in 2011 in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  When I visited, there was a group of the grandchilden (though hardly children – quite old themselves in 2011) of the men executed for their part in the Easter Rising. Just being in this place, I felt the full force of the sadness and suffering these walls held.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland
1/200 sec., f/5.6, 100 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth Will Set You Free

I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.

He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.

I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.

I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.

DSC_0397-1Famine Grave
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.