Category Archives: Persistence

How a Box of Rocks Made Me Smarter—and Calmer

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

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

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

My Stone Stress Seismograph 

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

Wisdom of Intuition

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

More Than One Path

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

Persistence Point

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

Creativity Jumpstart

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Rejection = Redirection

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

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

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

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

Be in the moment.

Christine J. Noble

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

Confidence without arrogance.

Faith with humility.

It is a fine line.

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

Rejection = redirection

Beth Weg

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

Just keep working the problem.

James Shipman

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

What is your dream?

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

As Easy as Learning to Ride a Bike

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

Olympic Discovery Trail

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

Tour de Blast: Mt St Helens

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

Centennial Trail

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

High Tide Ride

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

First Ride in January

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

Bike -n- Brew

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020.

Letting Clouds Get in the Way

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

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

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

And feather canyons everywhere
Looked at clouds that way

-Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

-Joni Mitchell

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

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

If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”

-Jim Rohn

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

The pointless pain of wanting it to be different.

 Suffering usually comes from wanting 

things to be different than the way they are. 

– Pema Chödrön

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

If you are invested in security and certainty, 

you are on the wrong planet. 

-Pema Chödrön 

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

Rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, 

what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? 

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

this is what it means to be human,” and 

decided to sit down and enjoy the ride? 

-Pema Chödrön

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

Nothing ever goes away 

until it teaches us 

what we need to know. 

-Pema Chödrön

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

 

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

DSC00274

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

A Lesson in Leadership

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

their ability to empower others. 

-John Maxwell

 

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

 

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

-Jack Layton

 

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

 

It’s amazing what you can accomplish 

if you don’t care who gets the credit. 

-Harry S. Truman

 

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

 

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

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

-Jim Rohn 

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

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

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

DSC_0743.jpg

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

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Obstacles and Opportunities

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

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

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

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

 

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

chicken pic.jpg

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Gamble

I am not a gambler.  In fact, the betting window would be closed and the race long over before I even identified all of the variables or made my first graph.  The horses would have died of old age before I analyzed all of the data. It’s not that I can’t make a decision quickly. I can. But data is my security blanket. If there is data to inform my decision, I am compelled to use it.  I can’t just pick “Betty’s Aunt Mary in the Pea Patch” in race two because I once knew a Betty who had an Aunt Mary who lived on a farm with two acres of peas.  I need something rational like a statistically significant difference in leg length or weight to height ratio.  It’s not that I don’t have hunches.  I do.  They are even often right. But I do feel the need to back them up with a reassuring trend line and four supporting peer-reviewed articles.  The truth is, the world is not always predictable or quantifiable. Yes friends, I said it. You can’t measure or calculate everything.  And it turns out that some of the most rewarding things in life come after a massive leap of faith into the unknown.

One year ago today, I took a huge gamble.  I decided to begin selling my photographs and paintings. So, with a frighteningly small amount of research on my part, I got a business license, found a wall to hang my artwork on and created a website.  I did all of that in one weekend. I hyperventilated through much of it. (A big thanks to my family and close friends for talking me off the ledge repeatedly that weekend as I chanted, “What am I doing?!?!?”)  Again, not because it was particularly scary, but because the sum total of my preparation was to read the state and city business license laws.  To put that in perspective, my dissertation is 253 pages long and, after four years of classes, and two years of reading research and crunching numbers, my unbelievably patient doctoral chair literally called me up and said, “Enough researching already, start writing!”  He was a wise man. I would have read “just one more article” and calculated “just one more ANOVA” forever if he had let me. I thought of him as I hung that first photograph and said to myself, “Put the nail in the wall already! What’s the worst that could happen?” Putting my artwork out for everyone to see was a little like jumping into a cold lake in early summer. It took my breath away and made my heart skip a beat. Creating something is so personal. And I didn’t have a chart of data proving it was right or good. I really liked my work. But I am biased. I had no idea if anyone else would like my work.  I’ve sold some photographs and paintings over the year.  That is an amazing feeling – knowing someone wants to look at my art, every day, on their wall! It was also an amazing experience to come to a place where it was OK if someone did not like my work.  The joy is in the creating. It’s icing on the cake if someone shares in that joy.

One of the many unexpected experiences this year was writing this blog.  As with the rest of this magnificent adventure, it was completely unplanned.  The truth is that I really liked the website template I chose on WordPress and I just could not figure out how to get rid of the blog page. So I wrote a short post about how I came to love photography. I truly thought that would be the only post I would ever write.  Blog.  Check. Not surprisingly, my dad figured prominently in that first post and continues to make cameos. I found I really enjoyed writing my blog (and friends I hope you are sitting down, I am not talking about a technical article!). I wrote about the amazing moments (and some hilarious ones) I have had behind my lens. My blog has grown and grown as I remember the big moments – and small ones – of my life.  Sometimes I just muse on life, love, and lessons I have learned. Whether I am writing about the love of my life, my grandpa, my dogs, my dad, my daughter or my day, I find myself laughing and crying and shaking my head.  In the words of Zorba the Greek, I love “the whole catastrophe” that is this amazing life.  And 53 posts later, I am having a great time writing about it.  I am glad I gambled on this adventure. Thanks for gambling on me!

I selected this photograph for my post today because it is really the first photograph I “gambled” on.  I entered it for the annual photo issue of  Rowing Magazine in 2015 and it was publish in the January 2016 issue. It was the moment when I knew that I wanted to take a  leap of faith and gamble on myself.

Women rowing

After the Finish Line
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.