Tag Archives: Life

Take the Day Off, America!

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

 

Seeing Through the Memories of Your Heart 

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

We see ourselves as we are now,

knowing what we once were. 

Those who love us, though, 

see us through the memories in their hearts.

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

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

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

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

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

Who are you missing from the memories of your heart?

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

I’ll see it when I believe it.

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Empathy Gap – Don’t Fall In

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

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

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

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

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

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

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

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Memories Under the Big Sky

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Have You Thanked a Teacher Lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_9480

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

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

I Got This, Mama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindergarten girl

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Two Sides of the Same Girl

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

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

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

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

Just me

Just Me

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Stronger Than I Thought

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Finding the Purpose of (My) Life

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

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Magic of Motherhood – Part One

Being a mom is a humbling experience.  I have learned more from my daughter in the last 18 years than I learned in any classroom. And I have spent 28 years of my life in a classroom learning, just saying.  But I don’t think I ever felt more ignorant, incompetent or unprepared as I did that first night home from the hospital with my baby in my arms.  Clearly the library of books on childrearing and child development I read in preparation for that day were completely ineffective and possibly inaccurate. I would have composed a stern letter of my grievances to each and every author with a request for a refund, but I was too exhausted to compose a coherent thought let alone a series of sentences.  Sometime during that night, I remembered the moment I found out she existed. I was not prepared for just how much I could love someone I had never seen before.  But love her, I did, and deeply from the moment she was little more than a cluster of cells and a thought.  I loved her in a way that made me think those stories of mothers lifting a car or stepping in front a charging animal to save their children were definitely not old wives tales. I could feel a mother bear growing heavy and fierce beneath my skin from that very moment. I knew with absolute and primal certainty that I would protect her at all cost.  I also wasn’t prepared for the sheer magic of it all, which was surprising since I am a biology major who was constantly in awe of the diversity of life on this planet and in wonder of the miraculous cycles of life.  But that moment when I was so maniacally hungry for cashews and red meat that no one was safe around me, I was struck speechless by the thought that I was probably making an arm that day.  I made an arm! Actually two, and two legs and two feet and a head (and well, every other body part).  I did the most incredible thing with literally no skills, knowledge or preparation, nothing but His blessing. That was so humbling.

As she grew, she simultaneously slowed me down and sped up time.  I spent hours just reveling in her discoveries of all those common things we take for granted in the fast-paced adult world.  Every new taste, sight, sound and smell stole her attention.  Before she had words, she told whole stories with her sea-blue eyes. She would scrunch her brows together and purse her lips and I could tell she was digging her heels in.  I secretly rejoiced in her willfulness as I knew with certainty she would be her own woman someday.  Her father called it her “principal face” and he would tickle her cheeks until she gave up the ghost.  She marveled at flower buds and puddles and mirrors and rocks alike. Where ever we went, she would come home with all of her pockets full of rocks. When I would show any frustration at my constant rock disposal duties, she would remind me of the most important thing: “Pretty!”.  And she was right. They were, but I no longer even noticed them.  When she found her words, she ran around asking “What’s that smell like?”  -not always at the most appropriate moments. But that was the beauty of it too.  It was all new to her and she made it all new to me. She was a tumbleweed of wild, unapologetic abandon.   I hadn’t contemplated a flower probably ever but there I sat in the garden as she smelled every blossom and kissed every statue. I looked forward to seeing her eyes grow wide and her laughter ring out as I knew it signaled that she just found something that set the gears in her head to clicking as they made connections and revealed the world to her.    She taught me that you are never to old for moments of wonder and amazement.  She taught me that it doesn’t take much to find that wonder and amazement.

Some of her words made me cringe and rethink my life.  One morning she donned a pair of my black heels (which so did not go with her pink pants and pastel sweater) and headed for the front door with her diaper bag fully packed.  I asked, “Are you running away from home already? You haven’t even been grounded yet.”  She replied, “It’s my beefcase. I got a meeting.”  Yikes.  She taught me to be careful how I spent my time because time was passing all too quickly.

Or when she started opening her arguments with the word “technically” and I knew she wasn’t going to fall for “because I’m the Mama.”  Technically is not a word you want to hear from a 4-year-old, especially if it is being used correctly.  It’s only going to get harder from there.  She taught me that someone is always listening. She taught me that your children can inherit more than your hair color and nose.

As the child of a principal, she spent a lot of time with me in the gym or on a football field.  I didn’t realize just how much until after our first trip to the zoo.  As we wheeled through the park, she shrieked with glee at each new animal.  She would repeat their names with great intensity: monkey, lemur, rhinocerous, giraffe, gazelle.  Try as she might, she couldn’t pronounce elephant. It came out eff-a- lant.  It was too cute so I stopped correcting her (until she got to kindergarten).  I won’t tell you how she said frog! Suffice it to say we had to quickly teach her the word “toad”.   She was so excited when we got to the cougar enclosure. She shouted “cooo-guh” over and over.  When we got home, I pulled out the video camera and asked her about our trip.  She talked about every animal except the cougar. I couldn’t understand why.  I had to pry her away from the cougar.  Finally, I said, “You forgot one. What about the cougar.”  She said, “Mama, cooguhs are not at the zoo. Cooguhs are in the gym.”  The mascot for my high school was the Cougars.  I realized just how literal little kids are. The world was so big.  There was a lot to make sense of. She reminded me that there are a lot of different ways to see the world. Two people can see the same thing, and both be right.

Being a mom is like riding one of those roller coaster that climbs for what seems like miles.  You feel the excitement building in your stomach, squeezing by your heart and getting stuck in your throat just before you reach the top. Then you realize you are going to be dropping fast and its completely beyond your control.  Just when you hit the bottom a curve comes out of nowhere and suddenly you are upside down.  It’s scary and thrilling. Your heart soars and plunges. You swear you are never doing that again. Until she smiles at you, and puts her tiny hand in yours, and says, “Let’s go, mama.”

These are some of my favorite baby pictures.
Pictures (clockwise from top left):

Her first night in the hospital sleeping on my heart.
Her first basketball game. She dressed up!
Cuddling at home.
Marveling that her arms were as big as my thumbs.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Change is hard but not changing is harder…

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

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

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

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

 

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Coaching at Granite Falls High School circa 1992

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

 

 

Evidence of a Well Spent Youth

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Never Pass Up A Birthday Party

I was invited to a birthday party yesterday.  I never pass up a birthday party.  I would not have missed this one for the world.  The grandmother of the little Sweet Pea, who was turning one, is an old friend of mine. Although I have to say that she and I might have different time scales for old friends. Her roots are deep, and she was surrounded by people she has known most of her life.  I have been more of a nomad throughout my life.  She is a vivacious, generous woman who made a life and filled it with the love and laughter of four generations.  It is clear she is passing that tradition down.

I arrived uncharacteristically late and the party was in full swing when my daughter and I pulled up.  The house was packed and yet I knew by her welcome that there would always be room for one more.  She walked us through the house introducing us to a sea of sisters, aunts, uncle, grandparents, friends and classmates. The backyard was filled with young parents deftly wrangling toddlers with one hand while catching up with old friends.  Babies crawled or teetered on new legs.  A small pup followed one curly-haired child around looking ready to lick his face clean or snatch a falling chip.  Dads were patiently tossing balls to children who clasped their hands together catching nothing but air yet shrieking with glee nonetheless. Many of the young adults had been students of mine.  It was so amazing to see them all.  I used to think the best part of being a high school teacher or principal was getting to watch kids grow into adults. They entered high school as gangly, tentative freshmen unsure of their gifts and strengths.  They left adults.  They might not have had it all figured out by graduation, but they were on their way.  I could see what was possible.  Decades of experience told me everyone grows up.  I was wrong- not that everyone grows up.  I was right about that. I was wrong about the best thing – it’s not watching them grow up and graduate.  The best part is seeing them with a family of their own.   A young dad rocking his baby with that look of awe and pride.  A young mom staying close but letting her child take those first tentative steps away from her- ready to sweep that child up in a hug, dust her off and set her on her way to try again knowing she will be always be there.  A young couple exhausted from late night feedings but so in love with each other and the family they are building.  Hearing about their jobs, their old dreams and all of the new ones. Those are all the best things.  That and seeing them here in this house with friends they have had for a lifetime.  Grandparents close- the ones they were born to and the ones who took them in.  Aunties they have picked up along the way. Doting uncles vying to give the favorite toy.

Don’t get me wrong, education is absolutely important.  Everyone needs a good education.  Having a job or career that fits your life is important. But a life is so much more than that. And what is important in life is so much more than that.  Knowing you are part of a family – biological or created – who know you well and open their hearts to you.  Raising children in a community that will love and support them. Giving your children the roots and the wings that they will need to grow into strong adults.  Creating a place where they can try and fail knowing you will be there cheering them on as they try again.  Celebrating every single birthday together- especially the first one.

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Sweet Pea
(1/60 sec., f/4.5, 100 ISO, 100 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Grandpa’s House

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

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

29a Jimmy Paris 1957

My Grandpa Jimmy Paris (Dimitri Heramanos Paraskevoulakos)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

Making Things Right

When I was a new teacher, I applied for a job in a small town in northwest Washington. I remember driving into town wearing my most professional skirt suit, firmly ensconced in my big old pickup truck. It was a beautiful drive from my house 52 miles away on country roads they brazenly labeled highways. As I drove up to the small office where I was to have my interview, I instantly knew this town was where I was meant to be. I can’t explain it really. I just had this sense of peace and clarity that I was in a place that fit (See my post A Life That Fits). I was young – about half my current age. Though I felt like a grown up, my youth must have been obvious as I stood teetering on high heels, tightly clutching the briefcase my dad had custom made for my graduation by the saddle maker in our hometown. I can’t imagine what I even held in that briefcase beyond a copy of my resume and maybe a legal pad. The superintendent’s assistant was kind and must have sensed my apprehension because she tried to put me at ease by talking about the high school where I was hoping to work. The time came for me to walk the short distance down a narrow cream-colored hall to meet the superintendent and principal. They were gruff men but that did not deter me for I had a lot of experience working with and for the sensitivity impaired. I don’t recall much about the interview except the last question. The principal, who reminded me of a cowboy from a B western, leaned in with forearms to the table and said, “What have you ever done that would prepare you to be a high school teacher?” At first, I thought that I must have completely failed in answering the last hour’s worth of questions. Clearly, he had heard nothing I said about my education, training or experience. But then I realized that he simply wondered if I could pull this off. And then it came to me and I replied, “I worked graveyard admitting in the emergency room. Nothing rattles me.” It was a bold statement, but I knew any chance I had of getting this job lived or died on my response in that moment and I wanted that job. He looked me in the eye beneath his jet-black bangs, took one breath and stated, “You’re hired.” I was relieved and terrified in equal measure. Above all emotions, I was determined to show him that he had chosen well.

I started in the fall and worked hard to prove myself. The principal was terse, but I liked him well enough. I was coaching three sports and trying to survive my first year in a new school. I often drove home late at night after a bumpy ride on a crowded, sweat-scented school bus from schools as far away as the Canadian border only to leave again before dawn to head back to work. Needless to say, it was stressful especially when winter came, and the days were short, the roads were icy, and the basketball team was losing. I loved the kids though. And teaching was everything I thought it would be. I reveled in watching the light bulbs go off. Science was always magical to me and I wanted so much to ignite that sense of wonder in my students. I had one student who seemed on a good day unimpressed and on a bad day downright contentious. I tried to engage him but slowly he worked his aversive therapy on me and, I am not proud to say, I stopped giving him the attention he was after. Of course, at the time, I did not realize this was happening. I was too inexperienced, and self-preservation was my focus. One day as he was waiting near my desk to talk to me, he started to play with the faucet at the table where I often demonstrated labs. I saw him from the corner of my eye and in my haste, with many students lined up for help, I told him quite directly to stop playing with the faucet. I looked over again and he looked me directly in the eyes. I small smirk washed over his face and, in one swift motion, he broke the neck of the faucet. A geyser erupted, and I ran to the water shut off valve. In probably not my best teacher voice (probably closer to a crazy-neighbor-lady-who-is-sick-of-dogs-pooping-on-her-lawn voice), I sent him to the office. I was furious. He broke my faucet! With malicious intent. With a smile on his face! I had enough.

My recommendation to the office was for swift and severe consequences, so I was taken aback when he opened my classroom door at the end of the day. I was about to send him packing when the principal appeared in the doorway behind him. The student stood silently looking at the floor, hands shoved deeply in his pockets. In that moment, he seemed younger than his 15 years and, in some ways, even fragile. A couple of awkward moments passed as I wondered what I was supposed to say. I felt like the words bouncing around my head were clearly wrong, but I am human, and I was still pretty upset that he vandalized my faucet. Finally, the principal cleared his throat in a low and measured growl. The student looked at him like he was being sent to the gallows and slowly turned to face me. In the smallest voice, he apologized for breaking my faucet. He didn’t offer a reason for his actions. Instead he walked toward the faucet, principal in tow. As he moved, I could see that the principal was carrying a tool box. Without saying a word to me, he set the toolbox down on the weather linoleum floor and took out a wrench. As he handed the wrench to the young man, he explained in patient detail exactly how to fix the faucet. As they worked, I listened. He did not lecture the boy on responsibility or condemn him for his actions. Nor did he engage me in the lesson. But I realized that I was a part of it. He could have fixed the faucet anytime, but he chose a time he knew I would be in my room grading papers after school. He was teaching the boy to make things right. And he was teaching me to forgive a young man who had not learned that lesson yet. When they finished, they packed away the tools. I thanked the young man for fixing my faucet. The smallest of smiles washed across his face. I wished I had thanked my principal for the lesson that day. Apologies are great. We should apologize when we harm others. More importantly, we should make things right. We should take action that shows real accountability beyond words and restores our relationships.

I chose this series of pictures because they are a great example of making things right. These two have been like sisters from the moment the younger entered the world. As sisters can, they sometimes step on each other’s last nerve. On this particular day, we were traveling across the Sound for the weekend. We had been stuck in ferry traffic for hours and the younger was getting restless. The older was losing patience. As they sat on the ferry, the younger made things right by making her friend laugh at her antics. She made a hat out of her napkin and wore it until the giggles took over.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Life That Fits

In the fall of 1988, I started my teacher training at Seattle University.  Armed with a newly printed Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Alaska, I enthusiastically set off to change the world – one sophomore at a time.  Every morning I drove my 1984 Dodge Ram pickup in rush hour traffic from my home in North Bend to Capitol Hill.  My pickup wasn’t really a commuter vehicle, but I loved that beast (standard stock for Alaska because it had a 225 slant 6 that would start at 40 below without fail).  Daily, I was subjected to derision as I spanned the width from line to line in my lane.  It was a manual which was my preference in general but especially on the perpetually snowy roads of the North Star Borough in winter.  Unfortunately, Seattle is a hilly city. In Fairbanks, no one would ever put a stop sign or stop light on the top of a hill. Not so in Seattle. It was a hair-raising experience to ease the clutch out and hold the gas steady as the light turned green – a shiny two door coupe hugging my bumper, sharp-dressed man at the wheel.  Needless to say, I am not a city girl by nature. I don’t like the crowds, the concrete, the pace or the traffic.  But I knew I could do a year.  Because at the end of that year, I would be standing in front of a sea of wide-eyed teenagers aching to learn about cells and molecules and the First Law of Thermodynamics.  They would be dazzled by my use of words like entropy and ecosystem and electromagnetism.  They would be spell-bound as I explained mitosis and reproduction and covalent bonding. Finally! I could see the finish line- the career I had been working toward since I babysat the twins across the street and taught them the alphabet.

After the first quarter, Seattle U required us to do a series of internships. Wisely, every student had to spend time in a city school, in a private school, in a country or suburban school, in a big school and a small one before student teaching began.  We were expected to teach a lesson in each setting.  I was anxious to be a teacher and looked forward to actually teaching a class.  My first stop was Cleveland High School in Seattle.  At the time, it was the smallest of the city high schools. But I was not intimidated.  They were teenagers after all. This was my calling.  I had been volunteering at Lathrop High School in the bustling metropolis of Fairbanks for months before coming to Seattle.  I got kids. They liked me. So, I watched the mentor teacher. She was skillful. Students did what they were supposed to do with little effort, it seemed, from the teacher.  Of course, in my naivete, I failed to recognize that it was January. I wasn’t there for the trials and tribulations of September.  At any rate, the day finally came when I was to teach.  I planned for a lesson on protozoans which I would skillfully introduce through Beaver Fever and other disgusting water-borne illnesses.  Because teenagers are fascinated with that stuff, right?  I walked confidently to the front of the room after the teacher gave a brief introduction which I think included some veiled threats should they forget their manners.  I started my lesson regaling them with a story about a friend who went camping and ill-advisedly drank river water.  As a result, she contracted Giardiasis (Beaver Fever).  I thought it was brilliant and I paused theatrically for they surely would have pertinent questions or comments to share.  One young man in the back of the room raised his hand.  I called on him and he stood.  I remember he was wearing striped suit pants and a button-down shirt.  I asked him if he had a question and he replied, “Ya, I do.  Does it look like I go camping lady?”  He wasn’t really disrespectful or aggressive about it.  He was clearly annoyed that I knew so little about him.  All I could say was, “No, it really doesn’t.”  I recovered somewhat when I turned the conversation to dirty drinking water in third world countries and sewers.  I was so relieved when the lesson was over and even more so when I remembered that it was my last day at Cleveland High School.  As embarrassed as I was at my complete failure to read the audience, I was also grateful.  As I drove my 1984 Dodge Ram, half ton, four-wheel drive, pick-up truck east on I90, I realized I just couldn’t relate to kid’s experience growing up in the city.  And that was the key to good teaching- relating new learning to what student already know so that they can make connections that forge deep pathways lasting long into the future and spurring the creation of new knowledge.  I knew a lot about microbiology, meteorology, geology, mammalogy, ichthyology, and mycology long before I ever set foot in a college classroom or even a high school classroom because I went hiking, fishing and camping as a kid. I tromped around the woods. I knew with certainty on that long drive home that I was going about this all wrong. I wanted to be a teacher so bad that I was trying to fit myself into the situation instead of finding the situation that fit me.   Fortunately, Seattle U gave me four more chances before I finally settled into student teaching at Mt. Si High School.  When it was time for me to look for a job, I was selective. I knew from student teaching that being a new teacher was hard work. But it would be much easier and more rewarding if I found a place that fit me.  And so, I did.

I think too often we try to fit ourselves into the life we think we are supposed to have or the life we think we are supposed to want.  The truth is that we first need to figure out who we are and what we need in a life. Then we can find the job, town, family, life that fits us. Actually, we deserve that.  I am not saying we should insulate ourselves. I am not saying we shouldn’t challenge ourselves to try new things or meet new people.  I am saying that becoming an engineer, because you heard it paid well, the job market is growing, and your dad wants you to be an engineer, could make for a pretty miserable life. Especially if it turns out you hate math.  Selling luxury real estate might be a miserable job if you are naturally introverted.  Living on a farm, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, might be unpleasant if you really love the theater and symphony and hate waking up at dawn rain or shine to feed the animals.  Take the time to find out what you need.  Life is too short.  Far too many people drive to a job they hate every day.  I never have- honestly.  And for that, I am so thankful to the young man who helped me to see the error of my ways 30 years ago.

I selected the photograph below for this post because I think it illustrates my point.  The Great Blue Heron was designed for this environment from the length of his legs to the sharp point of his bill.  Certainly, the mud-covered tide flats strewn with barnacled pilings would not be an ideal habitat for many of us. And yet, I think he is completely at home and there is a beauty in that which is undeniable.

DSC_3486.jpg
Great Blue Heron on the Hunt
(1/320 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Do It For A Friend

As I was driving home from work tonight, Corey Hart’s Never Surrender came on. You probably will only know this song if you were embroiled in teenage angst or young adult drama in the mid-1980s. It was the theme song for that.   I remember it because I recorded it on cassette tape and sent it to my best friend, naively hoping it might help to wake her up.  In the fall of 1984, I was sitting in a small lecture hall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks furiously scribbling every word Dr. Lokken uttered in CHEM101. He was brilliant, in my opinion, and never looked at a single one of his notes (if he even had any) as he lectured his way through the periodic table.  The first day of class, I was sitting in the front row with my brand new spiral binder eclipsing the tiny fold out desk.  I had the 20 lb Introduction to Chemistry book in my lap.  It was either over-confidence or complete ignorance that led me to think I could listen, take notes, and look something up in that book all at the same time.  But there I was, blue ballpoint in hand, writing at warp speed.  What can I say? It’s how I learn. I have to write it or draw it for it to sink in – whatever it is.  To this day, I do this- scribbling charts and diagrams, sketching arrows showing relationships, capturing important words or phrases, using shorthand to remind me of key ideas.  In the end, it is truly a mess.  There is blue ink everywhere. Circles and boxes and symbols fill the page and I choose to think of that as evidence of brilliant ideas instead of the more likely disordered mind.  Only I can fathom what I mean when I am scribbling my notes. On this particular day, my flamboyant style of note taking caught the eye of the woman sitting next to me. She was a curly-haired, doe-eyed freshman who I noticed, when Dr. Lokken finally took a breath, was staring at my notes mouth agape.  When my eyes hit hers, she uttered, “Wow, how do you even read that?” I was stunned, as you can well imagine, not that she would think it was indecipherable, but that she would have the audacity to say it to my face.  Fortunately, I was saved from having to respond when Dr. Lokken, lungs refilled, resumed his lecture.  As soon as class was over, I scooped everything up, shoved it quickly in my back pack and scurried out the door- mortified.  I mentally memorized her face and vowed to sit in the back during the next class.

Day two of CHEM101 came quickly and I had nearly forgotten about the incident.  I was also powerless to sit in the back row. I couldn’t do it. I love school. I am compelled to sit in the front, rapt in learning. Sadly, there was a seat open next to me when, of course, she walked in. She walked right up to me. Honestly, I was shocked. She was just a little thing. Clearly not tough at all. I pictured her in high school maybe on the dance team or key club helping people and generally spreading joy. I just did not know why she was being so confrontational.  Clearly, I misread her joyful aura because there she stood digging in her backpack from which she pulled out a bag with a UAF Nanook emblazoned on the side. She handed me the bag. I instantly felt really bad. I had definitely misjudged her and here she was making a peace offering.  And then I opened the bag. My jaw dropped.  Inside the bag was a mechanical pencil, extra lead and an oversized eraser.  I could not believe it. I was speechless. I just stared at her. I mean really, who does that?! Who criticizes a complete stranger and then twists the knife by purchasing the solution to the problem they painfully exposed?  In that space, while I was trying to find just the right words to tell her to sit somewhere else, she uttered, in just the kind and joyful voice I imagined she would have, an apology.  She told me she was sorry that she insulted me by being insensitive and, though she really didn’t want to hurt my feelings any more than she already had, she really thought I needed a pencil.  Zing! I am sorry, and you are still a mess – please use a pencil and eraser.  Ouch! But she quickly introduced herself in great and rapid detail, while unpacking her neatly organized materials.  I felt like I was observing a tornado in reverse.  It was quite extraordinary really.  She swept me up as she rattled along and by the time class started I found myself chuckling inwardly.  She was a pretty likeable person- cheerleader not dance team but definitely a natural at spreading joy.  (She was right about the mechanical pencil by the way and I still use them almost exclusively.)  From that day, we became fast friends.  It was an unusual friendship because we were different in as many ways as we were alike.  She lived in the same small town her whole life. I moved around a lot as a kid. Her family was simple and consistent. Mine was complicated and flexible.  She was an artist. I was a scientist.  We both loved the Pink Panther, country music, and the wilderness. As with most enduring friendships, our differences led to a deeper appreciation of each other and of ourselves.  It feels good to connect with people as much when it is a single string that we share in common as it is when there is a whole web.  People are meant to connect, to find commonality and reconcile differences.  Our friendship continued through the school year.  We passed CHEM101 and I convinced her to sign up for Organic Chemistry.  She bought the textbook before school was out because she was convinced that she would bail if she didn’t invest in the course.  Our friendship weathered sub-zero temperatures and near constant darkness. We found time for each other even when distracted by boys or overwhelmed with homework. They were both a big distraction back then.  She tried to teach me to ride a motorcycle that summer.  It wasn’t my thing. That was one of the best things about our friendship.  Our differences didn’t matter.

As we were preparing to go back to school in the fall, she decided to take a short  trip with her brother and some friends to Anchorage.  On the way down, she and her brother were hit by drunk driver outside of Palmer.  Her brother died at the scene, but she made it to the hospital albeit unconscious.  Back then, it was easier to get information.  There was a very kind nurse who seemed as concerned about her patient as she was about her patient’s friend hundreds of miles away.  The nurse was hopeful but realistic and told me to send a tape of me talking to her or playing some music.  She said it was possible my friend might hear me and that could stimulate her.  I sent her a long and silly tape that ended with Corey Hart singing Never Surrender.  It didn’t wake her up.  She was the first person around my age to die who I knew.  I was devastated. Although I did all the healing things you do, like planning a memorial and just being with our friends and family, I was not healing. I could not fathom the unfathomable- how a beautiful, kind, joyful tornado could die at 19 at the hands of a careless drunk driver.  Death seemed so unpredictable – as of course it is.  As I write this, even 37 years later, I am weeping for the loss of her and all that she could have been. Would she be married and have a child as I do?  Would she have been an artist or nailed Organic Chemistry? Whose lives might she have touched?  Pointless questions really but haunting ones nonetheless.  I am reminded this week that there are so many ways the light of a young person (or an old one) can be extinguished that we can do nothing about. But there are many, many more that we can.  For years, I spoke on a panel for new drivers about the real impact drunk driving has on not just the victim but the survivors. It was a small thing. I cannot know with any certainty I made a difference. But it was something. And we have to do something, I think. Right now, we have to do something.

Going Home
Going Home
This photograph was taken in 1999 (pre-digital) on a trip to my friend’s childhood home outside of Glen Allen, Alaska. Alaska defines beauty to me. It wasn’t the same without her.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Cry Over a Chipped Tooth

My daughter missed her dentist appointment this week.  In general, she is a very responsible teenager. I only bring it up because every time I hear the word dentist, I can’t help but run my tongue over the edge of my top right front tooth.  You see, I have a chip in my top right front tooth.  It is not a large chip. You wouldn’t notice it unless you knew it was there. I think it gives my smile a little je ne sais quoi– like Lauren Bacall but without the glamour. It is sharp and jagged just like the memory of how I got it.  Every time I go to the dentist, they offer to fix it for me. They don’t understand; it can’t be fixed.  And frankly, I don’t want it to be fixed. You see it is like a living reminder to me that there are consequences for not being nice to people.  In a way, it is a kind of penance I suppose. Although my transgression hardly deserves 42 years of penance. Still it is the little sins, the little scars we hold onto the longest.

I am one of four daughters and I was (am?) the tomboy of the family.  I was the kid who was always climbing on top of something, falling off something, getting covered in mud, making a fort- you get the point. I was the sole reason bandages and Bactine were purchased in our home. I was once kicked out of ballet class because I could not control my urge to Grande Jeté right into the line of tutu wearing girlie girls.  Sad day for my mother who was definitely a girlie girl. Happy day for my sisters who were tired of being knocked over like dominoes.  My mom wanted me to be a little more ballerina and a little less Tarzan. I wanted to be Tarzan. I won. I Grand Jeté’d myself right into the woods and built a fort.

On the fateful day my tooth was chipped, I must say I cannot remember what set me off. I imagine it was a conflict between what I wanted to play and what my older sister wanted to play because the target of my rage that day was her extensive collection of Barbie Dolls clad in evening wear that would rival anything you might see on the red carpet.  Now in family lore, it is said that I played with Barbie Dolls.  I do not believe this. There is no photographic evidence at any rate.  I expressed my anger by enthusiastically removing the heads of all of her Barbies. I popped them right off. I was probably smiling when I did it. I was really mad, and I knew that would make her really mad.  It, in fact, did. So, she grabbed the closest weapon, a full bottle of Sweet Honesty perfume, and hurled it across the room while screaming like a Banshee.  It connected with my face just on the tip of my right front tooth.  I knew right then I crossed a line.  But I was seven and though the magnitude of my actions were clear, I did not understand right away just what I had done.   I was angry. I wanted her to know how angry I was. Somehow in my seven-year-old brain, removing the heads from her Barbies was the right amount of wrong to express my anger. But I was wrong about that. As soon as that bottle of perfume hit my mouth, I knew it. I drove her to physical violence with my beheading.

So, my chipped right front tooth is never going to be fixed. I am never going to cover it up so that I can’t see it. I am never going to fill it in so that I cannot feel that jagged, sharp edge. I doubt my Barbie beheading would have turned into a life of criminal activity. But it very well could have turned into something worse – a life lacking compassion or empathy. I also doubt my behavior scarred my sister, though I should probably ask before I make that assertion.  It doesn’t seem to have scarred our relationship and I am grateful for that.  So I will accept my chipped tooth as part of my whole- the part that makes mistakes, atones for wrongs, learns and moves on (but keeps the chip lest I forget).

286a Angie and Catherine Shea 1967

1967: Five short years before the dreaded tooth chipping.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

First Love

My first was Charlie. You always have a soft spot in your heart for your first. He was a blonde who had the subtlest hints of caramel. I loved running my fingers through his hair. He was short, a bit overweight and not at all athletic but he made up for that in enthusiasm. He was always so happy to see me- my best friend really. He gave all the girls the same amount of love though, so I can’t be sure I was his favorite. Charlie was a great listener. He would stare at me like I was the most fascinating thing on the planet especially if I was eating something. He really understood me. Sometimes we would just lay on the floor cuddling. He would stay there forever as long as I rubbed his belly, scratched behind his ears and dropped crumbs in his general vicinity.

Shea girls and Charlie the Basset 1971The Shea Girls with Charlie
May 1971

Man, I loved that dog. I’d like to say he was my favorite, but I can’t because the truth is I loved every single one I have had. I am a dog person. I come from a long line of dog people. I used to listen to my dad’s stories about his bird dog Goosoise Francoise (pronounced Goose-swaz Fran-swaz – don’t ask because I have no idea where he came up with that one). He was apparently an underperforming and possibly near-sighted Brittany Spaniel. There was Betty Blue who was Charlie’s disinterested mate. She had a Great Dane attitude in a Dachshund body. Then came Arnold, who was my older sister’s black Miniature Poodle, and Nelson Rockefeller, my Lhasa Apso. They reminded me of a mob boss and his intellectually challenged sidekick. Arnold would charge to the back of the couch to bark out the front window at every passerby. Nelson would lope after him and then stop, check to see that Arnold was still barking, let out a sad little woof and wait for his next orders. Nelson was a follower. If they knocked over a convenience store, Arnold would take the cash and Nelson would be left wondering what just happened. Nelson’s hair bounced when he pranced through the house and he had a habit of patting you with his furry little paws when he wanted your attention. Then came Madame Clousseau who was a Bassett Hound like Charlie. My dad renamed her Dopey because, well, she was. Dopey was all mine when it came to her heart. We bred her, and I loved chasing after her pups. They were easy to catch because they had enormous paws and long ears- a deadly combination for a short dog. They would tumble about or drag each other by the ear. Dopey was always up for a walk in the woods. I was never alone with her. Bassetts are such easy going dogs. My dad had two more after I left home, Albert and Herbie. He loved those hounds and they loved him.

DSC_0024Herbie
(1/125 sec., f/4, 200 ISO, 55 mm)

When I had my first adventure in Alaska, I got an alleged American Eskimo Dog from a box of puppies someone was giving away in front of a liquor store in Skagway Alaska (my husband still rolls his eyes at this story). Lesson learned, you cannot trust the pedigree of a free dog near a liquor store. I named him Igloo after the liquor store and he lived in my shower for a couple weeks before I had to admit I couldn’t keep a dog. I sent him home with friends to my parent’s house. My dad pitched a fit and then he fell in love and changed Igloo’s name to Clyde. Dad nearly got rid of him when he ate the hose in the front yard, which was the last straw in a long line of behaviors that indicated the dog might be too dumb to train. As I understand the story, my dad’s attitude changed when a bear ambled out of the Cedar River Watershed into the front yard while my youngest sister was there. Clyde stepped up and chased it off. He might have been dumb, but he was fearless, so he lived out his days in front of the wood stove. When I was in college in Alaska, I tried dog parenthood again and I found two Springer Spaniels, a brother and sister who I named Levi and Strauss. Levi was a bruiser, the monster of the litter. I intended only to get him but when I arrived to pick him up the runt of the litter latched onto his ear and held on for dear life. I took this as a sign from the universe that they were meant to be together. With only a little argument from my then boyfriend (now husband), he relented and fell in love with Levi. It was a trick to train two puppies in winter in Fairbanks, Alaska but we pulled it off. Some days when we let them out to do their business all you could see was the tops of their heads and their ears bobbing around in the snow. They loved the snow. Sadly, Levi was stolen from our yard one day. The thief was thorough and took his food and water dish, so we knew we would never see him again. Strauss was brokenhearted as were we all. Not long after though, a friend of mine found a puppy wandering the railroad tracks after her mom was hit by a car so we added a Yellow Lab – Greyhound mix to the family. Sadie was a handful. She could chase down a rabbit at 50 yards, so we had to keep her on a leash. Sadie railed against that. Sadie and Strauss were a pair- inseparable. When our daughter came along, they included her in their pack. I would put her on a blanket in the yard and they would surround her while I worked in the garden. As she got older, they took turns herding her around the house. I remember the sad day when the time came that I had to put Strauss down. She was 16 years old. I called my dad crying on the way home from the vet. I was heartbroken to have lost her, but I knew as I held her in my arms that I was doing the right thing. Heartbreak is heartbreak though, even when you are doing the right thing. I asked my dad “What am I going to do? How am I going to tell Shannan?” He reminded me that I loved that dog more than most and took such good care of my friend and was blessed to get that love back. He told me to tell Shannan that Strauss was in heaven. I was shocked, by the way, that this actually worked. Shannan wanted Strauss to be happy in heaven. The next day Sadie slipped out of the yard when the gate was left open. We never found her. I imagine she was looking for her friend. It was a few years before we were ready to have puppies again. Eventually, we found a couple of Boxers in Eastern Washington and surprised our daughter on her 7th birthday.

DSC02981Shannan, Buddy and Finn Napping

DSC_04084Buddy and Finn
(1/125 sec., f/4.5, 200 ISO, 80 mm)

Buddy and Finn were mischievous littermates. They ate the kitchen. Literally, they ate the kitchen. We had to remodel. They were rambunctious. They once dragged Grandpa through a mud puddle. They were also cuddly and loving and protective. We lost Finn one day while on a walk. He had a seizure and never regained consciousness. Shannan and Buddy spent the rest of that weekend under the dining room table crying and snuggling each other. They weren’t the only ones crying. Two years ago, we brought home Buttercup, another Boxer. Our worries that the old man, Buddy, would not accept her were allayed the moment he saw her. He was so gentle. Buttercup took her place on Buddy’s bed and in his heart right away. Though he does have to school her occasionally, it is obvious he adores her. It’s hard not to. She cajoles him daily into playing with her. Though his bones creak, you can tell he is happy.

DSC_5999Buttercup Has Something to Say
(1/1250 sec., f/5, 400 ISO, 75 mm)

I feel so lucky to have had a lifetime of four-legged best friends. A lifetime of being greeted at the door by a tail wagging so hard it shakes the whole beast. A lifetime of being nudged by a cold nose when I am sad. A lifetime of curling up to a friend who forgives everything, keeps all of my secrets, and listens intently even when I talk on and on about nothing. Dogs are the best first best friend for a kid. There is so much we can learn from them about living: Forgiveness is a gift we should give often and accept easily. A hug goes a long way in healing a broken heart. Take care of the people you love. Be brave. Show people how happy you are to see them. Listening is more helpful than speaking. Don’t hold a grudge. Never pass up the chance to take a nap or go for a walk. Life is short, love big. Growl only when absolutely necessary. No matter how old you are, play with kids. Take every chance you get to let the wind blow through your hair.

DSC_0656Shannan and Buttercup in Deep Discussion
(1/1250 sec., f/5.6, 400 ISO, 200 mm)

DSC_7107Buttercup and Buddy
1/10 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 38 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Get Some Perspective

I had a very rocky start to my Tuesday morning. Keep in mind, I am a morning person. I jump out of bed no matter how early it is and greet my dogs (I even named one of my dogs Buttercup just so I could say “What’s up Buttercup?” every morning- that’s how happy I am in the morning). Buttercup and Buddy are not morning pups. They do a little downward dog and then hop in bed with my daughter to resume their tight 12 hours of sleep. Undeterred by their laziness, I turn on some music and I work out. I like my time in the morning working out, reflecting, and generally just getting ready for the day. On Tuesday morning however, I had a flat tire on my road bike. Fortunately, I was riding indoors so I wasn’t stranded in the rain in the dark. Regardless, I had to change my tire. I hate changing tires. I can never get the rear wheel seated on the derailleur correctly. I have very unhealthy thoughts when I am changing a tire. Picture a Laurel and Hardy movie- I knocked over the stand. When I picked that up, I knocked over my fan and then stumbled into the bike which hit the windowsill and tipped over my water bottle. This caused me to jerk forward just in time for the bike frame to land on my foot. It was a fiasco. Colorful expressions of extreme frustration were verbalized (and I am not proud of that). If someone had recorded me, it would have gone viral because it was hilarious but in that completely cringe-worthy way that mesmerizes people and causes them to send a link to everyone on their contact list. By the time I was done, I had chain grease half way up both forearms which I had to scrub off with that horrible (but completely effective) orange soap my husband keeps in the garage. It was too late to ride. I was frustrated. I was missing a layer of skin on my hands and forearms (orange soap is effective because it removes your skin).
As I was leaving the house, I noticed a message from a man I had not heard from in years. I had been his science teacher in high school a couple of decades ago. He was one of my favorite students – one of these innately positive people who lived his convictions in a way that drew people to him. As soon as I started reading his note, the black cloud that was hanging over my head drizzling on my bad attitude evaporated. He caught me up on all of the great things that had happened in his life since high school. He shared some of the challenges but in the way someone does who gets that life has its ups and downs and who chooses to embrace the ups. I felt so happy for him and the family he was building. I had to shake my head. Here I was about to let the drama of an inconsequential flat tire ruin my day. I could have easily missed his note absorbed in my manufactured crisis. That would be tragic because it is a rare and wonderful thing to hear from a former student or an old friend.

It has been my experience that there is a lesson in just about everything that happens in this life. Sometimes we are too busy thinking of our next response to hear it. Sometimes we are too preoccupied with the flat tire and grease covered hands to see it. Sometimes we are too absorbed in our current crisis to feel it. Sometimes we are just oblivious. But there is always a lesson. This note was a great lesson. It reminded me that I need to get some perspective. I need to step back, slow down, and look up. I need to remember that the important things in life aren’t things at all. Missing one moment of that would be the real tragedy. Inner tubes are ten bucks. People and the relationships we have with them are priceless. Thanks for the lesson and thanks for giving me some perspective.
I chose this photograph for this post because this eagle expression reminded me of my mood on Tuesday morning.

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Get Some Perspective
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 560 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

There’s Something About Sticking with It

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

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

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

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

“Do you still have your skis?”

I sniffed a weak “yes”.

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

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

He said, “You should go skiing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Looking at Life Through the Keyhole

Over the course of this week, as we prepare to celebrate my dad’s life, we have all been poring over pictures.  And I remember so much of what I forgot.  And I see things I didn’t know but they are so obvious to me now.  We know our family members because we have these long relationships with them.  We see some of them every day. We eat with them. We live under the same roof.  We work with them. We love. We fight. We heal.  And we form this picture of who they are as people. But it’s not complete- even if they are our spouse or our parent.  The truth is we see people like we are looking at them through a keyhole.  We see that focused bit of who they are right now, but we can’t see the whole picture.  Oh sure, it adds up and we think we have the whole picture. But really a person is like a jigsaw puzzle and, no matter how hard you try, you are never going to find all the pieces and where they fit together.  There are always going to be things we don’t see, or misunderstand, or are absolutely sure about and absolutely wrong about at the same time.

I should have known he was once a goofy little boy who probably annoyed his sisters regularly- you can see it in their eyes as they lined up for a fancy picture in their Sunday best.  I wish I had asked more questions about his childhood. He was a tough guy but he also had a soft side. I found several pictures of him through the decades crouched in a child’s chair, daintily holding a tea cup while playing tea party with his daughter, and later his granddaughter and great niece.  (Although I have to say there is zero chance there was actual or imaginary tea in those cups. Coffee. Black. I guarantee it.) He loved his babies and grandbabies.  He never missed a chance to hold one or toss one on his shoulders. As my youngest sister reminded me this week, the view was the best from there. I wish I had asked more questions about my childhood.    Why did he love dogs?  And what was the deal with Basset Hounds? Who taught him to fish?  How was it that he could just talk to anyone (seriously, he could carry on a rousing conversation with a rock)?  I know a lot. Don’t get me wrong. We talked.  But I wish I had asked more questions, assumed less, relied less on my keyhole vision.  Found the missing puzzle pieces.  Maybe that is always the way. We think we have time. We think we know.  We think we have talked about everything we needed to talk about.

Here is my challenge to you: pull out that old album, scrapbook, or box of pictures.  Look at them. Really look at them. Think about this person you have known forever and who they are in total. If you are lucky and they are still with you, call them up and ask them about the time that…  Ask them who is in that picture.  Quit looking through the keyhole and open the door.   My experience is that people love to remember and we should not forget.  But someday they won’t be here to tell us.

More than three decades apart, my dad had mad tea party skills.

386a David and Angie Shea

DSC00626

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Lean In

I was sitting on a plastic couch in a hospital waiting room sobbing in that heart wrenching way you do when you are racked with grief. I had just finished making those difficult phone calls to friends and family, when one of my sisters sat down beside me. She put her arm around me as I wept. She gave me a squeeze and said, “Hey. Come on. Lean in.”  And I did. And it felt so good at that moment, when I felt utterly alone despite being surrounded by family. I leaned in. It felt so good to share the burden. It did not stop my heart from breaking or the tears from falling.  But that simple touch, knowing she shared that grief with me and in some way (that defies algebra) adding her grief to mine, actually lessened it.  That simple phrase, “Lean in”, just stayed with me all night. I realized I need to learn to lean in more. I realized I don’t lean in enough and I wondered why.  It’s a problem. I live in a country built on fierce independence. Where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Where we get back in the saddle. Where we rub some dirt on it.  Where we get up, brush ourselves off, and do it again. That ethic is in every line of my family and it runs deep. We come from strong people who crossed oceans with almost nothing in our hands and absolute determination, blind courage and deep faith in our hearts. Somehow, I don’t think leaning in was a strategy they used much, and it certainly wasn’t a strategy they passed down our line.  “Get up”, “move forward”, “never let them see you sweat”? Yes.  “Lean in”? Not so much.  Don’t get me wrong, that fierce spirit has served me very well. That is not going to change.   I even remind my daughter often “Shea Girls are fierce!”.  But there is a time to lean in. There is a time to accept support and help. There is a time to share the burden.  So, I am going to lean in when I need to.  I am even going to lean in without being told to.  Thanks to my little sister for reminding me to lean in.

This photo (though it is short one Shea Girl) really spoke to me for this post. I am the one on my dad’s lap.  My “Lean In” sister is smiling in the background (she was a really giggly, joyful little girl), trying to get to us.  My dad is reaching out to my oldest sister.  Every one leaning in with love.

285a David Angie Patty Catherine Shea 1967

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

It’s the Little Things

I think at the end of a life, it is the little things you remember most. The seemingly inconsequential moments become indelibly written on our minds and hearts.  Oh sure, every relationship has big moments.  There are marriages and births, graduations and new homes.  And every relationship has good times and challenging ones – even tragic moments.  But I think we are hard-wired, fortunately, to remember the good things and we are blessed to be designed to hold the little things closest in our hearts.  As my dad’s life has come to an end, I am flooded with these little things. They catch me off guard, my heart clenches, my breathe catches, and I am transported back in time. Sometimes I am moved to laughter and other times to tears but always I can feel these moments like they happened yesterday.  Like the other night, I was playing cards with my husband and daughter. As we are Irish and bilingual in sarcasm, the game was hilarious (This is a relief as our chief concern when we were pregnant was that our child wouldn’t have a sense of humor- turns out she has two dominant humor genes).  Will the Circle Be Unbroken came on the stereo and tears flooded my eyes.  It was like I was a child again.  My dad loved bluegrass music and this was his favorite album.  Soldier’s Joy came on with Earl Scruggs picking on the banjo.  I instantly remembered the time he took me to hear Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs play in Seattle. My love of Bluegrass music, especially the banjo and the fiddle, started that day. The chords plucked out in rapid succession, clear and loud, pounding in time with my heartbeat.  I could feel it propelling my feet and filling my heart. My dad gave me such a love for music of all kinds. To this day, traditional Irish music and Scottish pipe and drum bands move me to tears of joy.  He loved the words as well and I remember he kept the lyrics to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads thumbtacked to his bookshelf.  I remember the time he took me to see Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and they sang Me and Bobby McGee. My favorite line was But I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday. I didn’t get it back then, but I do right now.

I remember all the things we made.  He liked to make things. He lived in a house he built with his own hands. He ate at a table hewn from wood he dragged across the country twice before he figured out what it was going to be.  He sat on a chair perched on feet he carved himself.   My daughter rocked on a horse he carved and sat at a desk he built.  But it’s the little things he made that I remember most. I remember one time we went all the way to Pike Place Market to buy a chunk of blue cheese, so we could make blue cheese dressing from scratch. I remember the time he found a recipe for mint chocolate pudding in the New York Times and together we melted Junior Mints to mix in. He taught me to cook. He taught me that I could learn to do anything.

I remember Sunday mornings, he would let me work on the New York Times Crossword with him as long as I found one across for every one down that I figured out.  I remember him reading “Child by Tiger” and “Chicago” to me and asking what I thought.  I remember our camping trip in Montana where we hiked into Flathead Lake to fish. It was such an adventure. He taught me to shoot a gun and cast a fly on that trip.  I remember going with him to Patrick’s Flyfishing shop in Seattle and watching him pick out feathers and thread. I was fascinated listening to him and the other men talk about what the fish were biting on.   Later I would watch him tie flies and he would tell me about the exotic places and animals that the pieces came from.  Then he would tell me stories about his own dad fishing.

I remember the time I found his shaving cream next to his bathroom sink and tentatively pressed the cap. Living in a house full of girls, shaving cream was new and exotic.  The foam came out with ribbons of blue and green and it was so fun that I kept doing it until I used up the whole can.  Of course, I lied about it fearing I would be in big trouble. But it was just him and me, so clearly he had me. I remember he told me that the day would come when I would want him to trust me and that trust was built on days like this.  I confessed (I always confessed).

In the end, our memories are made in the tiny, very real moments two people share. They define and shape our lives.  The little things are the big things in our relationships.  Blue Cheese Dressing and crossword puzzles were so much more than that. They were the moments when we talked and laughed, we learned about each other. They were the moments when I asked the big questions and got the honest answers- whether I liked it or not.  They were the moments when I learned where I came from and developed the dreams for my own life.

I chose these pictures of my father and each of his “Shea Girls” for this post. It seems like I have a million pictures of the man but none of these are mine of course. It seemed fitting to remember him holding each of us in his heart as we are holding him in our hearts now.

386a David and Angie SheaDavid and Catherine Shea372a David and Patty Shea 1967

dad with daughter 1970

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Old Year’s Reflection

I have never been one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I think it might be my very well-hidden but absolutely well-developed rebellious side. Oh, I keep it in check for the most part but a rule with no meaningful basis, even if self-imposed, brings it out in me. (Don’t get me started on the Don’t walk on the Grass signs. I mean really! It’s grass. I’m going to walk on it, lay on it, play fetch with my dog on it…)  In addition to impending internal rebellion, a year is just a really, long time. I usually break the resolution in the first week and then I might as well wait for 2019.  I prefer to see every day as a new day and do the best that I possibly can.  If I screw up, I forgive myself, make it right, learn from it and move on. I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and fortunately I am in very good company.  Instead of a New Year’s Resolution, I prefer to make an Old Year’s Reflection.  I focus on what I am grateful for in the past year. I think about what I have learned in the past year.  Then I pray for many blessing for everyone in the New Year.  All of that seems a lot more important than committing to losing some weight or having a perpetually clean house.  (Though, truth be told, I would be happy if both of those things happen as well.) This past year has been a year of change and acceptance.  It has been a year of creativity, exploration and risk-taking. It has been a year of joy, celebration and gratitude.  I would not have missed one moment or traded one breath for all the world.

Change and acceptance seemed to be a theme for me this year. I would like to say I have accepted that change is inevitable, so I just roll with the punches with poise and grace.  But the truth is I don’t always.  Sometimes I just want to throw a boot stomping, dust kicking, screaming fit.  This year, I definitely wanted to do that.  This is the year that I finally had to accept that I am no longer that physically strong 20 something that I am in my mind.  I had to learn to accept help doing things I normally would take great pride in doing myself.  Though I may have gone kicking and screaming toward acceptance, I got there. But I did not get there alone.  I am so grateful for my friends and family who eased the way.  I am grateful for my daughter and her friends who took the top off my jeep while I was still recuperating from back surgery, so I wouldn’t miss a single top down day this year (and there were many and each one was glorious!).  I am grateful for the friends who took turns going on pathetically short walks in winter weather with me as I recovered and learned to walk properly again.  I am grateful for the friend who lifted carboys, so I wouldn’t miss out on making wine this year. I am grateful for my amazing husband who kept me laughing through the whole thing.  It is easy to accept the changes in your life when you surround yourself with friends and family who know what you love and understand what will be the hardest for you to let go of.  It is the small things that help you to accept change and to see that change might mean the end of one thing, but it is not the end of all things.

Creativity, exploration and risk-taking were another big part of my year.  I took a giant leap (refer to Confessions of Closet Artist) and started selling my photographs. I had so much to learn about setting up a business and I probably would have been completely deterred by the magnitude of that process had it not been for the encouragement of a friend. Actually, she took one look at the photographs I brought her, and she gave me until the weekend to get them framed and hung on her wall.  I could so easily have talked myself out of it.  I think she sensed that, so she played to my strengths- she gave me a deadline (deadlines and trophies are my kryptonite).  That simple but exuberant encouragement was the kindling I need to light my fire.  That’s what we need in life: friends who know when to tiptoe silently forward with an apple in their outstretched hand and when to show you their spurs.  She gave me the spurs and I am so grateful she did.  I have learned so much this year about photography, about art, about business and most importantly about myself.  Some things were harder to learn than others and at least one of those was a fortuitous disaster.  Because I couldn’t figure out how to delete the blog page from the website template I fell in love with, I started a blog.  I don’t usually surrender that easily but surrender I did. That led me to writing my blog: Life Through My Lens.  I have enjoyed this so much!  I am grateful to all of you who read my blog and especially those of you who have commented. It means a lot to me that people take time to respond to the blog and share their ideas.  I am grateful to all of my friends and family who encouraged me to start on this journey.   You have made taking this leap so worth it!

Lastly, this has been a year of joy, celebration and gratitude. Hopefully, you are already seeing the gratitude.   I am not sure if this has been an unusually joyful year or if I am just more aware of the joy this year.  But joyful it has been. The year has been peppered with celebrations- showers, weddings, births, graduations and birthdays.  All of them celebrations of love, family and friendship.  I am so grateful to have just been witness to these special moments.  It is not only the big “I do!” moments but all the simple moments that fill the spaces.  Watching an older couple holding hands remembering their own wedding year’s past.  Grandmas cradling newborn babies. Big kids taking care of little ones.  Friends sharing laughter. Sitting by the pool with a friend reveling at the wonder that is our girls. Dancing with abandon.  Taking one for the team and being first on Splash Mountain so I can hear the shrieks of glee behind me.  Sitting on the beach watching surfers ride the waves.  Having late night talks with my sisters. Sitting in the dark with my husband waiting for the sun to rise.  All those tiny moments that make life’s joy so, so big.  I am grateful for all of the people in my life who share those tiny moments of big joy with me.   I wish you all many blessings in the New Year!

I chose my logo as the image for this post.  I designed it to represent Catherine Matthews Images.  Hopefully you can see that it is my initials CM separated by an i in the shape of a joyous woman.  I thought this was a fitting image for the post.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Like Looking in the Mirror

A couple of years ago, all of my sisters descended upon the eldest’s home in the sweltering heat of mid-July in Arizona.  We came to sort through boxes of pictures my mother had kept. Though I offered to collect and digitize them for all of us, I am grateful for my eldest sister’s wisdom in insisting we get together to go through them.  I’m not really sure what prompted my interest in the pictures, but I imagine it had something to do with our father becoming ill.  The possibility he might pass loomed and I felt like the tether tenuously holding our collective history might snap from that loss.  I know for me, as I get older, I have this need to know about the past and not just mine but that of my parents and their parents.  Somehow knowing our family history gives me a deeper understanding of my own life. I have always been interested in our family history, but I have spent most of my time exploring my dad’s family history.  This was the first time I really had a chance to explore my mother’s history.

It had been some time since we were all together in the same place at the same time.  We spent a couple of days laughing, playing cards and floating in the pool working up to sorting through our history. I expected to find the pictures of our childhood and maybe even pictures of our mother’s childhood.  I did not expect to find so many pictures of our grandfather’s family in Greece.  I came upon the picture below and I instantly felt like I was looking at myself in 30 years.  Her eyes, her nose, the line of her mouth, all mine.  I saw that expression often in the mirror.  My sister had the writing on back of the picture, which was in Greek, translated and it said, “To my beloved siblings and nephews, Christine Georgakopoulou”.  She must have been my grandfather’s aunt given her age in the picture.  My grandfather’s last name was Paraskevoulakos.  Apart from my youngest sister and my daughter, I never really thought I looked like anyone in my family until that moment.  I certainly didn’t think I looked like my parents. But looking at Christina Georgakopoulou gave me this sense of belonging to something far greater than the present.  This old, scratched, creased picture made me feel like there was a thread, tiny but steel-strong, that ran through me to my grandfather and all of his family.  My grandfather crossed an ocean in 1912 alone at the age of 18.  My own daughter is nearly 18 and I cannot imagine putting her on a ship to another country where she could not speak or read the language.  He landed in Chicago and then traveled to Seattle. I complain when I can’t get a direct flight. He crossed a country, I assume by rail, and couldn’t even read the signs in the railway depots.  I know that he found a community of Greek immigrants at St. Demetrios Church in Seattle, so he wasn’t alone. Still, I know it could not have been easy.  He was strong and courageous and as I looked through the pictures of his family members in Greece, I found that same strength in their eyes.  I see it in Christina Georgakopoulou’s eyes and those are my eyes.  I see it in my sisters’ eyes.  I see it in my child’s eyes.

I think we pass on much more than our looks through the generations. We pass down the fabric of our spirit.  I am so grateful for that weekend in the sweltering sun to have discovered a connection to my family history. I am even more grateful to have deepened the connection to my present by sharing those moments with my sisters.

6a Christina Georgakopoulou

Christina Georgakopoulou

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

 

Picture Books

Before the digital age of photography, we printed our pictures and mounted them in albums. We had wedding albums, graduation albums, christening albums and vacation albums. We made scrapbooks chronicling every detail of our child’s life (I only got to age three and it took nine albums, so I entered a 12-step scrapbook recovery program to kick that habit). If you were not careful, you would be invited to dinner at a friend’s home just after they returned from their recent trip through the Panama Canal, and held hostage until you looked at every single shot they took (That one’s not so great because Bert’s head is in the way, but you get the idea- the Panama Canal is so much bigger in person! Don’t you think?). People bought slide projectors and transferred their photographs to slides. Sets of slides were kept in carousels in proper order. I always hated carrying the slide carousel for fear I would once again trip and hundreds of tiny slides would fly across the room. It was a huge production to get them all back in their tiny slots in the right order and not upside down or backwards. With the advent of the slide projector, a new challenge arose- staying awake! With albums, your host had to leave the lights on which made it harder to fall asleep or at least more embarrassing when you did. But with the slide projector, the lights went off and, if you positioned your body just right, you could sleep through the whole thing. Of course, when the lights came on and you were startled from your slumber, you might inappropriately shout “just stunning, so lovely” after a slide show of your Aunt Lena’s funeral.

A great benefit of this era was that people generally passed on their photographs. Generations of pictures would accumulate. The photographs held the collective story of the family. Even when holes existed in the actual story, the photographs often gave us the clues. Since we pass on more than our DNA, they also, in important ways, hold the clues to our own personal story. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of family photographs from several branches of our family tree going back to the early 1900s. A few years ago, I inherited my maternal great aunt’s collection. I always liked her. She struck me as gutsy and strong. Born in 1920 on a small farm in what is now Issaquah Washington, she struck out on her own in her mid-20’s to live in New York city. I once asked her what it was like to move across the country in the 1940s all alone. She said it was her greatest adventure and I knew then that I had inherited some of her spirit. She told me that the world was a very different place back then and so, though she was an adult, she had to get her father’s permission to move that far away to take a job with Bell Telephone. She had to have roommates because it was not acceptable for an unmarried woman to live alone. Her job was to increase the efficiency of the operators. It was a relatively new job and few women held management positions. I cannot imagine the courage it would have taken to do this in the 40s long, long before technology made the world such a small and convenient place. I am sure letters and postcards carried news to family and friends arriving days or weeks later. Traveling home would have been costly, arduous and infrequent. But as I looked through her pictures, I saw a woman unafraid of the challenge. She is always smiling or laughing. Her photographs tell the story of a life well-lived. Throughout the years, she documented her adventures as she traversed the states camping, hiking and golfing with friends. She dressed up and went to parties. She dressed down and went to the pool. She fell in love but never married. Until her dying day, she lived with joy and courage.

Though I do not look like her, I feel I inherited her spirit. The beauty of family photos, especially those passed down for generations, is that you discover the deep roots of those special parts of yourself. I come from a long line of a strong women. I may not look like them all, but the pictures tell the real story.

Aunt Bert Circa 1940

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Seeing the River for the Rocks

I think people fall into one of two categories naturally. Oh sure, people can change. People can even change back and forth. But we all have a fall back type we are most comfortable with. I think people are either hunters or gatherers. I’m not talking about actually hunting (although I am not opposed if you want to hunt for food.) I’m not even really talking about food (although I think the way we eat is the way we do everything in life- but that is for another post). I am talking about life in general and problem solving in particular. By nature, I am a hunter. I see a problem. I hunt the problem down to the exclusion of all other things. I (metaphorically) kill the problem, cook the problem, and eat the problem. Then I move on to the next problem. I want to be more of a gatherer. I know how to be a gatherer. I even apply gathering skills appropriately. Though I sometimes wish it were, gathering is just not my natural style. I have always been very focused. I have often had jobs where there is an overwhelming amount of complex or critical work that has to get done in a short amount of time. In the end, I guess the nature or nurture question really doesn’t matter. As Popeye says, “I yam what I yam”.

The challenge for a hunter is that absolute focus, while a gift in many cases, can mean you risk missing the bigger picture. Take this first photo, Mossy Rock, for example. The background is obscured. You don’t really know how large the rocks are because there is nothing to compare them to. You see the contrast in textures between the rock and moss. There is certainly beauty in the details. But the story is limited to just what is in front of you.

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Mossy Rock
(1/125 sec., f/5.6, 200 mm, 200 ISO)

But if you move back a bit and take in the greater scene, you start to see the magnitude of the rocks and the rich variation in colors and textures that you might have missed in the first picture.  In the second picture, Mossy Boulders, you can see that there is a field of these boulders.  Though you can’t see beyond them, you can see that they vary in shape and size.  The moss is like a tattered blanket on their surface.  But we are still missing a lot of what is going on here.  If we just step back a little further, we can see the whole picture.

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Mossy Boulders
(1/60 sec., f/8, 200 mm, 200 ISO)

The rocks form the bank of a river cutting through an evergreen forest. Though they are immense, they are not most powerful force in the picture, Mossy River. The river is. It rushes by effortlessly sculpting the rocks in its wake. It is responsible for the lush green foliage and the dense blanket of moss. It may even have been responsible for depositing the rocks there. There is motion here you couldn’t see in the first two pictures. The whole sense of the scene changes from heavy, immovable and monotone to light, dynamic and symphonic.

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Mossy River
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

As in photography, so in life.  Even though I am a hunter by nature, I have learned to step back. I have learned that focus is a gift in much of my life, but looking upward and outward gives me a better perspective to see what is really going on. While focus helps me to see the intricate details, stepping back helps me to see complex connections. Stepping back helps me to see the river for the rocks.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Growing A Family

Last night I went to my favorite Christmas party.  I have been attending this party for 26 years, though it has been going on for much longer than that.  In those years, I have missed it twice: once when my daughter was only three weeks old and once when that same daughter got sick (on me) on the way to the party.  I love this party and not just because every single person brings their A game when it comes to the delicious dishes they bring.  I come because the couple who host really understand what it means to welcome people into their family. You walk up to their door and light and joy billow out like there is just too much to contain it all inside.  From the moment you walk in, you are swept up into these deep, warm hugs from everyone.  They are not the “hello-glad-you-are-here-leave-your-coat-on-the-bed” side hugs.  They are the full on “I-have-missed-you-and-I-can’t-wait-to-catch-up” bear hugs.

The house is decorated inside and out. Lights twinkle in the yard but the real magic is inside.  An enormous Christmas tree stands in the living room bursting with ornaments and ribbon.  Homemade candies and cookies are never more than an arm’s reach away.  Pictures line the walls and not just their family pictures.  These pictures tell the story of every family present.  My heart sings when I walk around and remember the silly, giggling girls and squirming boys who sat on Santa’s lap -yes Santa comes to this party every year!  It is so amazing to watch them all grow up.  And even more amazing that they are still all here.  These same little girls and boys are now bringing their boyfriends or girlfriends and some even their own families to the party.  And that is a testament to how they feel about this family and this party.  One was even snowed in at her university and couldn’t get a flight home so her dad drove all of the way across the state and back so she wouldn’t miss the party.  That’s love right there on so many levels.  This is definitely a family party.  From babies to grandparents, you feel at home.  You feel like family.  There is something for everyone.  The little ones are usually captivated by the Christmas village.  Every open surface is covered with the Christmas village. Actually village does not do it justice.  It is more like a Christmas metropolis- a quaint metropolis, but a metropolis none the less. Skiers and sledders dot the snow covered hills.  A train snakes in and out of the tunnels past fire-heated houses and snow-capped businesses.  Shoppers drag home their packages and trees.   Dogs bark and frolic with skaters.  Carolers sing festooned in their fur-lined mittens and muffs.

Over the course of the night, generations of party goers sit together and share.  We share the milestones of the year. We share our hobbies, interests and plans. We share our celebrations and challenges.  We share what is happening with children and grandchildren. We share a glass of wine, an amazing meal, and love for a special couple who really understand what it means to welcome people into their family. I am one of those they picked up along the way and welcomed, with my own family, into this extended family.  I am so grateful for that.  I have been blessed to meet such wonderful people who have had a hand in shaping my life.  I’ve learned a lot from them all over the years, not the least of which is this:   Love is the one thing you can give and give and give and it does not run out.  In fact, it grows exponentially by giving it away.  In so doing, you are growing your family.

I selected the photograph below because it embodies the love and joy of this party.  Grandma is laughing with her granddaughters and my daughter.  They were all being so silly.  This was taken in 2004 and they were all at the party this year too- a little less squirmy but no less joyful!

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(1/30 sec., f/2.7, 7mm, 64 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Redefining the Win

I am a very competitive person. Now, I know what you are thinking. You’ve heard that before usually from someone who is really nice and says it with a slightly self-deprecating laugh as if they are trying to warn you that Mr. Hyde’s appearance is imminent. So, no. I am competitive like one of those jackals you see on a National Geographic film. The one that dies of starvation because she refuses to let go of the wildebeest’s leg and is subsequently drug to her death. Case in point, my “team” once took second in a golf tournament. This is only impressive because I am the worst golfer in the history of the game. Truly. I was only invited to play golf, ever, literally for the comedic effect. And make no mistake, it was comedic.  The kindest, most compassionate superintendent I ever worked for once did his impression of me driving off the 5th hole at Indian Canyon. He even repeated my colorful language, which was shocking in the way it would be to hear Laura Ingalls Wilder swear. It was also painfully hilarious and dead on. The game made me absolutely crazy. I only golfed because I didn’t want to miss out on the deals cut on the course. It killed me that I just could not put it all together for more than one drive in 20.  On this particular sunny Sunday morning, I was having a relaxing day with my team when, on the ninth hole, my assistant principal pointed out we were in second place. Until that moment, I didn’t even know it was a tournament! And then he told me there was hardware! I do love a trophy and none more than one won the hard way. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I wanted to.  I didn’t want to (did I mention there was hardware?). At that moment, had you been on that particular course, you could have felt the joy being sucked out of the air from the 1st hole to the 18th like a twister touched down. Honestly, I was a lot like a tornado at that point- focused and unaware of the destruction I left behind. I never played better and we did take second. It wasn’t fun.

In my defense, I grew up at the height of the space race when your permanent record followed you around heralding the limits of your potential and every Saturday morning you relived the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.  Being competitive, persistent, determined were seen as strengths in my family, school and community.  School was particularly competitive.  I am sure that at the time the prevailing belief was that competition to solve problems resulted in better solutions made faster.  I don’t think I ever heard the word collaboration in my k-12 education.  In fact, I imagine Sister Estelle would have found that to be a sneaky way to make cheating sound like it wasn’t the sin that it was.  “Collaboration” very well could have ended in a few Hail Mary’s and two sore knees.  As a college science major, we did not do “group projects”. We certainly did not help each other out because back then it could lower your grade and definitely your standing in the class. In retrospect, that sounds really lonely, arduous and inefficient. Fortunately, I learned this before I had a classroom of my own.

I am still competitive. I am also much more self-aware. I think that comes with age and parenthood. If there is anything that will shine a light on those cringe-worthy parts of your personality, it is seeing them in another person – especially if that person is your child. There is just no getting around the epiphany that your child learned “it” from you.   I am aware of this gift/curse in my personality (actually I am aware of several). I have learned to keep it in check- mostly. I’m not saying that I am no longer competitive. In fact, I was watched like a hawk at the post-Thanksgiving feast card game.  I find, though, I don’t feel the need to compete as much anymore.  I find that competing against myself motivates me.  I find I don’t need to win all the time.  I find I learn more from my losses than my wins; from my failures than from my successes.  I find that I want to enjoy the experience rather than miss it in the focused pursuit of the hardware. I find that collaborating brings me deep learning.  I find great satisfaction in helping others.  I find that being really good at what I do is not diminished by others being really good as well.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my daughter. It was taken a decade ago and captures her natural competitiveness I think.  She doesn’t play basketball anymore but she still goes all in no matter what she is doing.

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(1/60 sec., f/5.6, 200 mm, 1250 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Living in the Shadow of the Mountain

I have lived in the shadow of the Cascades for most of my life. Slogging through traffic on a clear day, I am struck by the deep blues of the sky framing Mount Baker in the distance.  Shadows across the white peak shimmering in glacial blue.  Snow dusting the foothills and highlighting the rocky crags. The impossibly deep green of pines stubborn and proud.  Strange as it sounds, I feel protected in this pocket of volcanoes.  Sentinels of great strength and beauty, it is easy to forget how dangerous they can be.  The range controls our moods. When the wet air slaps its face, the peaks toss it back to earth with booming thunder.  It is awesome. It is frightening. It is unpredictable and unyielding.  When we are socked in for days, I hate that range especially now that my joints creak and ache singing out the evidence of my well-spent youth.  But rain never bothered me as a kid. I would lace up my waffle-stompers, button up my 501’s, put a down vest over my Henley and off I would go. I loved the woods.  Even in a downpour, the forests of the Pacific Northwest protect you under the dense evergreen canopy.  I can still feel the spongy earth strewn with rotten wood; the fiddle head of ferns brushing my jeans; the fat drops of water sliding off a leaf onto my cheek; the electric smell of rain. Tromping through the forest with my dog in the shadow of the mountain was home.   Living in the shadow of the mountain, it would be easy to yield to its will.  You could stay indoors by a fire, warm and dry. Wait it out. Hope it will pass soon. But you would miss so much. It’s better to soldier through.  Take cover when you have to, but be there when the rain stops and the drops evaporate.  Be there when the steam-filled air filters the sunbeams.  Be there when the skies clear and the mountain comes out. Truly live in the shadow of the mountain.

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Shadow of the Mountain
(1/1000 sec.,  f/5.6, 250 mm, 200 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

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.

A Gift

On the walls in my office hang three signed limited edition Judi Rideout prints, one signed limited edition Jon Van Zyle print and an original watercolor by an artist who shares my last name.  Guess which one I love the most. If you guessed the water color on construction paper, double matted in peach and black, you are right. That five year old budding artist was so proud of her creation and even a dozen years later, I know she takes pride in the fact that it hangs on my wall. It’s special and not just because I love the artist but because I know the amount of thought and effort she put into it. She told me all about it in that animated way only a five year old can speak- so fast that the words pelt you. I reveled in every detail of the story. Artists are like that whether they are 5 or 85. Ask them about their work and they light up. They live their inspiration and when they speak it gives such a depth to their work. It helps you to connect with it. A piece that drew you in initially, now has you mesmerized.

Every year, I take a trip with my sisters.  Along the way, we have to stop and take a picture with the World’s Largest Frying Pan or the motel shaped like a dog or Carhenge – you get the idea. It’s silly but it gets us laughing and out of the car. While we are out posing in front of the World’s Largest Wine Bottle (which, by the way, is not filled with wine- disappointing!), we invariably find a shop to explore.  We gravitate to places you probably aren’t going to find through Google that carry things made by hand. In Arizona, we stopped at a roadside pottery shop that had the most beautiful garden art. I bought handsewn worry dolls for a friend.   Incidentally it also had a handmade “Warning: It’s Scorpion Season” sign which helped me to really focus on the fine details of the pottery.  In San Diego, we found hand embroidered shirts and watched aritsans hammer metal into jewelry.  I like the idea of finding the ‘just perfect’ gift that few other people – maybe even no one else- will have.

I also like the added benefit of supporting artists and artisans. It is difficult to make a living as an artist.  Even the most naturally talented artists and artisans take years to develop their craft and find their unique style.  If I have a choice between handmade and mass produced, I choose handmade.  I visited the Schack Art Center in Everett recently.  It was incredible to watch Nancy Callan and the other glass blowers as they patiently drew out the shapes and colors. What an amazing place to view art of so many mediums! They have a great shop where you can purchase original works. These places are everywhere! Whether it is your local museum, art center, or street fair, stop and see what artists and artisans are creating. Look around your local restaurant or hair salon. Businesses are supporting artists work and it’s on display. Before you buy the World’s Greatest Mom mug, remember how happy she was to get your mis-shapened but utterly gorgeous sculpture of a puppy. Support an artist and give her that just perfect, one of a kind, handmade gift. She’ll love it and so will the artists.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Standing in the Middle of a Bridge

Last weekend, I found myself once again standing in the middle of a bridge at dawn.  My youngest sister was in town for the Thanksgiving holiday and I took her up to see the Eagles on the Skagit river.  There was a brief misunderstanding wherein she thought we were going to see Joe Walsh at sunset and not “Bald” at sunrise but we recovered quickly and were on our way long before dawn. I did some research and found a good location over the river.   The safe walkway was on the west side of the bridge putting the road way between me and the eagles fishing on the Skagit river.  There were four of them when we arrived.  The eagles were screeching wildly as they swooped and soared over the water, landing precariously on the overhanging branches.  Through the early morning fog, I could see the flashes of white from their heads and tails as they raced by.  Their yellow talons extended as they reached a perch or homed in on a steelhead.  I am always anxious when I first arrive where I am shooting especially if the action is already underway.  I feel like I am missing something.  I want to get set up as soon as possible and find the perfect vantage point.  As I was searching the scene, I was awed by the power and beauty of these birds.  I thought about going all of the way across the bridge and shooting back toward the north shore, but I could see they favored the south shore when perching and fishing.  I considered crossing the bridge but it was foggy and I thought that might increase the probability that I would be photographed later by a crime scene unit while prone in the middle of the road. I nixed that idea pretty quickly.  So, I stayed put. I took out my long lens and started shooting.  The fog was a problem and I am going to be going back when it is less pronounced.  Even though I did not get the shot I wanted, it was amazing to be so close to these birds as they were fishing.

I am trying to get more comfortable standing still half way across the bridge. In this case it was literal but more often it has been metaphorical.  I’ve spent the greater part of my life moving forward generally at high speed.   I have been a very goal oriented person always thinking about and planning for the future. I see obstacles as a challenge.  They might slow me down but they do not deter me.  Giving up is not really in my nature even when the evidence would suggest it would be prudent. This has served me well in so many ways. Perhaps it is just age and wisdom.  Perhaps it is the fact that you cannot really rush art.  I am realizing that I am inspired when I am inspired.  Eagles and elk appear when they appear where they appear even if I schedule it for Saturday morning at 6 am in Concrete, WA.  So more and more, I find myself standing on a bridge – literally and figuratively.  I am standing in the present trying to decide whether I should move forward or retreat. But more and more I stop myself and get comfortable standing still right there in the middle. Though my tendency is to move forward, I am working on being present right where I am – marveling at the eagles screaming by.

DSC_6948hrslogoThe Eagle is Landing
(1/400 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

It Really is the Thought That Counts

When I was a little girl, my father gave me a copy of Marguerite Henry’s All About Horses.  He worked for a publishing company and loved books so it wasn’t unusual for me to get one for my birthday or Christmas.  I loved this book. In fact, it is sitting on my own daughter’s bookshelf to this day. This book was special to me because I loved horses and it really was ‘all about horses’- the evolution of horses, types of horses, breeding horses, training horses, colors of horses…. back then I wanted to know everything about them and I had THE book!  This book was so captivating with its photographs of soldiers on horses, barrel racing, wild horses and fox hunts.  Even at the ripe old age of ten, I marked the important sections. I must have really valued this book, because I affixed a library check out form to the front cover and apparently checked it out to one Michelle Sweeney. Good thing she returned it. I have records.  I remember this book fondly forty years later. I kept it all these years. It crossed the United States at least 4 times. The best thing about this gift is that he picked out something he knew I would love because he knew I loved horses. It was more than just a book. It was a gift that said he knew me and wanted me to have something I would treasure. He gave it some thought or maybe he just came across it. Either way he must have thought I would love that book.

We give a lot of gifts out of social convention or obligation. Those are important certainly. But the gifts  that are truly meaningful are the ones we give to honor the people we know and love by showing them just that. We know and love them.  It is not the size of the gift or the cost of the gift.  It is the fact that someone thought of you and knew you well enough to know this gift would be truly treasured.  My husband is this kind of gift giver.  He always gives the perfect gift.  He just somehow knows exactly what I need.    I must confess, however, that I have not always been the best gift giver.  I have even been guilty over the years of giving gift cards.  Sure, I rationalized at the time that I was giving the perfect gift. After all my niece or nephew could go buy whatever they wanted.  But I don’t think an Old Navy card is quite going to give my niece that same warm feeling 40 years from now that I have from a simple book.

As a working mom, I have often found myself over the years in a state of complete panic when I realized that the three months between Labor Day and Thanksgiving had disappeared and I had not even begun to shop for Christmas presents.  I know some of you have shared this terrifying experience when you realize you are once again not going to be writing that Christmas letter to catch everyone up on your family’s activities. You are not going to have time to knit matching sweaters for that perfect family Christmas card picture in a snowy, star-lit meadow.  You are not going to bake 10 kinds of cookies for the neighbors and the mailman and the garbage collector.  It is just not going to happen.  Maybe it is time for me to give some things up that are nice but really fall short of meaningful.  My goal this year is to give the gifts that say “I know and love you”.

I selected the image below because this stand of birch trees reminds me of the special times my husband and I camped across Alaska. I had been looking for a painting for our home for some time but this weekend I found this stand to photograph. I think this is a great gift to us as a reminder of a very special time in our lives together.

DSC_7010cslogoThe Stand
(1/30 sec., f/7.1, 500ISO, 170 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Gratitude: It’s not just for Thanksgiving

Twenty-nine years ago, I was a student teacher in my home town.  As you can imagine, I was so enthusiastic.  I vibrated with idealism.  I waltzed into my first Biology class ready to dazzle them with my knowledge, certain that I would hold their attention easily for 55 minutes.  It was science after all. Who doesn’t love science?  It’s magical and slightly gross.  That is the equation for holding a teenager’s attention.  Ah the idealism of youth – mine not their’s.  Needless to say, teenagers are not easily impressed.  I was a mere five years older than most of the seniors. And at that moment, I was extremely happy my youngest sister had graduated the year before because it was clear to me I was going to have to talk to a parent (or 150 of them) and the thought of calling my dad (or any other dad) to extol the mischief of his child made me want to go to back to graduate school to study ornithology.  Birds rarely heckle you or so I am told.

That fateful day came when the Assistant Principal broke the news to me that I would in fact be calling some parents.  She was a little rough around the edges which I liked I because I am a little rough around the edges. Though she was direct, I could tell she wanted me to survive student teaching (I told her about my ornithology idea).   She gave me the best advice that day. She told me for every negative call I made, I had to make a “happy call”.  As soon as I was done making that first painful call and make no mistake it was painful, I picked a student who was working hard in class and I called that parent as well.  Ironically, I got the same reaction from both parents upon hearing that I was the dreaded teacher.  They didn’t actually say “ugh”, but I could tell they were thinking it.  But once I started talking about how hard her son was working in class and how much I appreciated him, it was obvious she was ecstatic.  I could tell I made her day, maybe her whole year.  Who doesn’t want to hear how great their kid is?  I learned that day that gratitude is exponential. By appreciating that one student, I made one parent very happy.  She obviously expressed her gratitude to her son who in turn was very happy and that made me happy. Also he literally told everyone.  I made a point of thanking Ms. Harkey for making me do it.  I kept making those “happy calls”  throughout my career.

I was reminded of this today when I received a very nice thank you note. I could tell this person put some thought in writing the note and was grateful.  I don’t think I really did anything special but that note sure made me feel special.    At Thanksgiving, we are reminded to be thankful and show gratitude.  We should be thankful – for the big things and the little ones.  We should be thankful more often for sure.  I think gratitude comes easily and it is so obvious for the big things:  health,  healing, gifts, security, births, weddings, love and grace.  Sometimes we even know without a word or a note, that someone is grateful for us.  Take the photograph below, for example.  A new mother with her beautiful, happy, healthy child.  You can see how much she treasures the simple act of holding her giggling girl. She does not need to write a note or say a thing.  That child knows.  And anyone looking at her knows that she is grateful for this gift.    Sometimes, though, we do need to take the time to say thanks.  We need to write a thank you note to someone who maybe didn’t really do anything special but it was something kind or helpful. The world is full of complaints, conflict and crisis.  Make someone’s day.  Their appreciation will likely make your’s.  Your thankfulness will be exponential. I can pretty much guarantee it. I know. I thanked four people today.  It felt great!

DSC_6259Gratitude
(1/250 Sec., f/5.6, 640 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Love in Black and White

I think this is my very favorite picture and that is saying a lot given the sheer volume of my collection. I didn’t take this picture but when I look at it I truly wish I had met the man who did. When I look at it, I wish I could give him one of those fierce, deep hugs and thank him for this photograph; thank him for every time I have looked at this photograph and was wrapped in the memory of the fierce deep hugs my grandfather gave me. This photograph was taken the year he died and I graduated from high school. Though it is old and faded, it brings back memories so rich and real that I can feel and hear and taste and smell them still. I can feel the weight of his big heavy hands patting me solidly on the back. I can feel my face sleepy and warm resting on his chest. A feeling so sweet I put up with the scratchy wool of his button down. I can hear him chanting “a-mana-mana-mana” as he bounced me on his lap releasing giggles and glee. I can smell the leg of lamb roasting in the kitchen and Orzo simmering on the stove on Sunday afternoon. I can hear the soundtrack to Never on a Sunday turning under the needle of the stereo. I can feel my grandfather taking my tiny hand in his and dancing me around the room in a way only exuberant Greek men can- knees high, feet deftly crossing over and back, hands clapping. In this photograph, I see the most beautiful man I’ve ever known. Though the wages of time line his face, he seems no less a lion to me- strong and powerful with no need to act upon it. The slight upward turn of his mouth belies a mix of kindness and mischief. I see the man who called me the Skippy kid because I wouldn’t eat egg salad. And gave me a sip of Ouzo when I wouldn’t stop crying (Ouzo is the cure for a lot of things.)

A photograph can never replace the person. I would certainly prefer to have him here in three dimensions. But he is in my heart. And there is something about this photograph that makes it possible for me to clear away the cobwebs, dig through the boxes and find those long lost moments of joy and love, even of sadness and pain, that bring him back to me in fleeting moments when I need him most. I keep this photograph on my desk and have for as long as I remember. I tell my child stories about him so he will be in her heart too and she will know how powerful love is. A portrait is so common now. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to take a portrait that captures the true spirit of a person. A picture capable of bringing them to the top of your mind and heart. To this photographer, whoever you are, thank you for a gift I cherish every day. May we all give this gift to someone.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Live Your Passion

I think in just about every situation we can learn something.  It has been my experience that it’s usually something we need to learn right when it is time to learn it.  It is not always something we want to learn. It has also been my experience unfortunately that the universe is ready when it’s ready and it’s best to just get on board or the universe will continue to give you learning opportunities. I hate that. Take for example the time my cooling system exploded in morning rush hour traffic on the way to an appointment in Seattle. I learned a lot. I learned I’m way too attached to my Jeep. I learned there is no point in throwing a fit over something you can neither control nor fix on your own (no matter how satisfying it is to throw a fit and believe me I find a boot stomping fit highly satisfying).  I learned there are really good people in the world who will help you out. Now it was not the first time I “learned” any of those lessons. But sometimes you need to be stuck alone on the side of the road for an hour or two helplessly watching steam pour out of your engine to properly reflect on these lessons and really let them sink in deep.

The best lessons do not come from things however.  The best lessons come from the people who come into your life. I am blessed in this regard. I have known so many incredible people. I’ve also known a number of really challenging people. I have found I can learn from both if I just pay attention.  I ran into one of those incredible people just last weekend. I had not seen her since she was a teenager. I always thought she was a special person- and not in the “everyone gets a trophy for being on the t-ball team” kind of special. Special as in I could picture her using her gifts to do something really extraordinary in her life. She is one of those naturally joyous people who just glows. She had just finished her degree in opera and I was curious how she came to study opera in the first place.  She shared that she had intended to study medicine but as she was selecting a college she heard someone speak who changed the course of her life. This person said that many people are passionate about art or music but don’t study it because they believe that they will not be able to make a living. He asked them to consider what would they do with their lives if money was not a factor; to figure out how to make a life rather than a living.  He challenged them to live their passion. And she accepted that challenge. She took a leap of faith that she could live her passion. As I listened to her talk about her education, her upcoming performance and her plans for the future, it was clear she is living her passion.

Admittedly living your passion is a little easier if you are young and just starting out. When you don’t have a marriage, a mortgage, a child, two dogs and a college fund to fill, it’s easy to explore a life making custom surfboards and searching for the perfect wave. But the fact is, even at my age, you can find your passion. You can find ways to make room for your passion in your life.  I see it happening all around me- people are climbing mountains, learning to paint, traveling, training for a marathon, dancing competitively and singing opera. They are finding their passion in big ways and small ones.  They are finding that thing that challenges them and feeds their souls.  I know I have found mine. So, thanks to my young friend for helping me to learn this lesson.

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Taking Flight
(1/500 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

The Eye of the Beholder

When I was a kid, my dad gave me Masterpiece for my birthday.  It was a board game in the mid 1970’s much like Monopoly except that players bought and sold artwork in an auction.  I don’t remember playing the game even one time.  But I remember the game.  I remember the cards.  Each had a different painting on one side of the card and information about the art and artist on the other.  Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, Toulous-Lautrec, da Vinci, Degas, Pollock…the names were so exotic.  Their stories were tragic and even a bit naughty.  Their works were all so different.  I remember the Pollock best of all which is ironic since I first thought a ten year old could have done it.  There was something about it even then that drew me into the painting.  Perhaps it was the motion and the choas of reds and silvers splashed across the canvas. Perhaps it was just the effort I had to put in trying to make order and see something – anything – in it.  I also remember wondering what made it art at all.  How could Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge  and Pollock’s No. 5 be equally art. Perhaps if I had not been destined to be a science major (see my earlier post wherein I confessed this already), the question of what makes something art would be truly obvious.  I see now it is maybe less important to define art by what it is and more important to define art by what it does.  Art touches us deeply, viscerally.  It evokes emotion in indescribable ways.  I cannot explain why Hana Hamplová’s Meditation on Paper exhibit makes me nostalgic.  But I can smell the dusty pages and hear the crinkle as they are turned.  I cannot explain why Masséus’ Under the Same Sun makes me both sad and joyful. Perhaps it is the perfection of contrasting colors and the obvious carefree brotherly love juxtaposed to the horrific story of their lives.  Or why I just don’t get van Gogh at all (and I don’t think his missing ear makes his work more tragic or mysterious).

So how do you know if you created art?!  I know every parent thinks the finger paintings on their fridge are inspired and the hand print plaque is priceless (I personally have a couple of originals hanging in my office now that I would NEVER part with).  I know when I create a piece that moves me, it moves me not in my head but in my heart.  I hope someone else will have a similar reaction of course. But it is just as likely that someone will be completely unmoved maybe even dislike a piece. I don’t think we do our best work or live our best lives trying to please everyone else.  In the end, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.  Create. Just create. Put what you love out there.  You cannot control how other’s will experience it. Cliff Fadiman said, “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”  I think the same is true with all art. We see ourselves in it. The more we look at it, we see more in ourselves than there was before.

This piece is one of my favorites.  What do you feel when you look at it?

 

 

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First Frost
(30 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Lighten Up!

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

A Different Light

Last Sunday morning at 0530, I found myself next to an empty field on the outskirts of Concrete, Washington.  No, I was not deposited there after an alien abduction.  Also I am too old to pull an all-nighter (debauchery-filled or otherwise) so I was not in the clothes I wore the day before, if you know what I mean.  No, I was there intentionally.  In fact, I had intended to be there in late September or early October but life, as it sometimes does, got away from me.  I was hoping to photograph one of the elk herds in the area.  My research said that this was the spot.  So there I was, standing outside in the dark setting up my gear.  It was a little cold but mostly it felt crisp and clean in a way you never feel in the city.  The sky was glorious.  Millions of stars blanketed the heavens in a way you never see in the city.  Silence, like the fog, hung blissfully in the air.  Not even early in the morning is it silent in the city.

As I waited for the sun to come up, I decided to take some test shots of the field. I was hoping to have everything dialed in just right for that big moment when those majestic beasts swaggered out of the treeline, air billowing from their nostrils, hooves pounding the frosty ground.  After a couple of hours, it became apparent that the elk were not going to make an appearance.  This was disappointing.  The truth is you can’t really change what is.  You can, however, change the way you see what is.  In the light of morning, I did not feel that disappointed really.  I had seen the sun rise through a starlit night over a fog-dusted field.  Seeing that field in a different light was a thing of beauty.  It wasn’t what I set out to photograph but life seldom unfolds exactly as we thought it was going to unfold.  It unfolds in the only way it can. We can choose to see it through the lens of disappointment over what we hoped might be.  We can also choose to see it in a different light.  I would have liked to have seen the elk.  I am glad I adjusted my settings so that I did not miss capturing these incredible moments. As a bonus, I had an amazing breakfast with my husband at the 5 B’s Bakery in Concrete where the nicest woman served delicious food and gave us some great tips for our next trip up there.  I’m glad I didn’t miss any of it.

These photographs were taken in the span of about 10 minutes varying the shutter speed and ISO.  Notice how the landscape becomes defined and colors change in the different light.

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(30 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18mm)

 

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(15 sec., f/5.6, 1000 ISO, 18mm)

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(10 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

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(5 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

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(2 sec., f/5.6, 800 ISO, 18mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Picture Meaningful

I like really old stuff. I have so much antique glassware my husband recently told me he thought we might have to fortify the foundation of our house. Hyperbole not withstanding, I have a lot. I like drinking out of glasses my grandparents drank out of. I like eating off of plates that were used to celebrate holidays and births generations ago. Though inanimate, I feel like my 100 year old cordials hold in their shiny molecules the sum of their history of wakes and weddings, birthdays and baptisms, conflicts and congratulations. This is my lofty goal for my photographs. Don’t get me wrong I am highly satisfied with accepting money for one of my photographs. After all, the generally accepted way to show someone you value their work is to pay for that work. But money comes and money goes. There are other things more enduring.

It is immensely gratifying to know that my photograph Oars hangs in the home of a family all of whom rowed for the same club. I hope it will hang there for many years and be a reminder of a time in their lives when they shared something special.  I hope someday a man will point at one of my photographs and tell his children, “That’s me and your Uncle Leo the last year we rowed together.”  I hope 30 years from now a grandmother will be holding her grandchild and saying, “Look at this!  This is your mama when she was a baby. You look just like her.”  I hope someone is displaying Glendalough Graveyard on their wall and daily sharing in my love of all things old and Irish. I hope, when my own daughter is my age, that she will be wrapped in the warm memories of her life through my photographs. I hope The Ten Faces of Madeleine will ease with humor the inevitable tension of the teen years.  I hope someone is saying my landscapes remind them of home and that their heart clenches when they say it. I hope someone will gaze at the expression of agony on the face of their child in those last strokes of a race and say “I’m so proud of you for having the courage to do that!”  I hope someone will pass on my work to someone who admired it often.

My lofty goal is to create something meaningful. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think everyone wants to do something meaningful whether it is through our work, raising children, passionate activism, creating art or music, compassionate acts or volunteering. At the end of the day, we picture meaningful.

Oars

Oars
Tail of the Lake 2015
(1/320 Sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 150 mm)

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.