Category Archives: Life Long Learning

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

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

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.

IMG_0151

Adulting All Over The Place

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

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 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…

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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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

DSC_9480

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

 

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.

If you believe you are a Labrador Retriever….

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I know I have talents I have not yet discovered.

Do you? Will you?

 

DocFile (2)

DocFile (1)

Learning to Walk

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

IMG_3231

 

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.

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.

So Much to Learn, So Little Time

I love school. I love it so much in fact I have spent 42 years of my life in school and another 6 supporting schools so far. Basically, I was 4 the last time a whole year went by and I was not in school.  When I was a babysitter, I even used to hold school.  Parents loved me. Actually, the kids did too because I made learning fun. When I was a kid, my dad worked for a publishing company in the college division. He had so many books! Art history, Spanish, anthologies, calculus, anatomy…. it was all so fascinating to me.  I was voracious. I did not care how many times I had to look a word up in the dictionary, I just had to know they all meant. I mean what was a synapse or alliteration? I had to know. I could not pronounce anti-differentiation but I sure wanted to know how to do it someday.  Not too much was off limits where learning and literature were concerned.  I read Thomas Wolfe’s The Child by Tiger long, long before I fully understood racism.  To this day, I can feel the pulse of Sandburg’s Chicago in 1916 and see the heavy-handed, barrel-chested men eking out a life proud, sweating, and fierce. I wanted so much to understand how different languages worked and how anyone ever understood anyone else ‘in the old days’.  Suffice it to say, I loved learning and I still do.

It was not just the learning though.  I loved the order and structure of school (which was lucky because nuns loved order and structure). Frankly, chaos exhausted me and I have always had a natural inclination to make sense out of chaos. My eyes would dart around as I tried to mentally catalog ideas, movements and comments and put them all into an intricately connected web in my head where it all made sense. Back then school was about right answers, solving problems and rising to challenges. Those were three of my best things. I was good at it. I have the report cards to prove it. I also have a brain full of obscure information- like the names of the twelve cranial nerves. Of course, when I first was a student, people did not have such easy access to information so a brain full of obscure information was highly prized.  Back then, I did not have an iPhone, iPad, and desktop computer where I could look up the twelve cranial nerves and their anatomy and physiology. (Did they even know about cranial nerves in the 60’s?) Back then, I had the Shoreline Library where I could access the encyclopedia and any books they kept at that branch of the library.  So much has changed.  I could probably Google how to perform surgery on the 12 cranial nerves and find 12 YouTube videos showing it in graphic detail.

My love of learning and my tenacity in making sense of the world has come in very handy in this journey. There is so much to learn about photography. Sometimes I feel like I will never learn it all.  Maybe that is so. Part of the challenge is to conquer the device and the elements or at least tame them enough to get the shot.  I am naturally inclined to accept a challenge enthusiastically.  So, I read voraciously. I pick up books whenever I can on the technical aspects of photography as well as the artistic elements.  Currently, I am reading Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits (Amphoto Books) to learn more about how he approached his subjects and managed to bring out the depths of their personalities in a single photograph.  For the more technical aspects, I like Bryan Peterson’s books.  There are great online resources as well. I’ve learned so much from other bloggers and photography websites. I turn to  Agrandaiz Ramana Harahap who writes a great blog outlining skills and processes so clearly. I learned to take risks and experiment from Ed Lehming’s work whose series “Shift to Shiver” is captivating (I Turn to Rust is my favorite). I could go on and on.  So much to learn, so little time. In fact, I gauge my passion by just how interested I am in learning more and how much effort I am willing to put into figuring it all out.  Personally, I hope I never stop learning.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Confessions of a Closet Artist

Confession time. I was a science major. There, I said it. It’s out.  What a relief!  Does that mean I am not also an artist?  Well frankly, I sure thought so.  In fact, I could make you a chart quantifying my non-artistic characteristics. (My friends are shaking their collective heads right now both in exasperation and agreement- I really will make you a chart. It will be a work of art.) I thought people were basically artists or scientists.  And every other “ist” was just a branch of those two categories.  Clearly, I spent too much time on Linnaeus. In my overly dichotomous mind, I am a scientist. I definitely see the world through that lens. Even when I am literally looking through my lens, I see the world that way. I just don’t see these as mutually exclusive anymore. We bring the totality of our experiences, feelings, culture and education to everything we do.  My lens is the curious mind of a scientist.  In that way, I see the miracle of life on earth in everything I look at.  I am amazed by the changing color of a leaf in fall partially because I know that there are millions of biochemical reactions taking place to preserve the plant’s life through the harsh winter.  I find the graceful ballet of hunting Great Blue Heron even more mesmerizing because I understand the dance of form and function evolution has perfected.  I see the predictable demise of an abandoned crane perched precariously over a river bank poetic – even elegant- because I know the awesome power of nature and the inevitability of entropy.

The truth is I haven’t changed. In reflection, I have probably always been an artist. At some point, someone or some experience led me to believe that I was not an artist or perhaps just that I was a scientist.  It is really not an “either/or” world though. It is an “and” world.  One can be a scientist and an artist.  Or as my dear friend Madeleine says, a Princess and an MBA.  I see the world not just through my eyes, but through my heart, my experience, my culture, and my education. I create through all of those as well.  And that, after all, is the root of art- creation in all its diverse forms and from all its diverse perspectives.  It is easy to box ourselves into one picture of who we are.  People, every last one of us, are complex and limited only by how we conceive ourselves. Oh sure, we have roles.  But we are not those roles. We are much more than that.  Imagine how you might see the world if you let go- just a little bit-  of the who you think you are or the who think you should be and became the who you already are. I am an artist (and a whole bunch of other things).

The photograph below, entitled The Crane, was taken on the Snohomish River in early spring.  The crane extends on the riverbank, a monument to the days of logging traffic on the river.  I used black and white to bring out the textures of the emerging buds and show the similarity between the man-made and natural elements.  This an example of my awe of the forces of nature.  Though glacial in speed, nature always prevails.

The Crane.jpg

(1/1000 Sec, f/5.6, 800 ISO, 280mm)
Signed Limited Edition Prints (20) available. Contact artist.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.