Tag Archives: Perception

One word can change your world.

I was a big baby the last week of August. I didn’t realize it until Tuesday morning when I was putting on my gear to go for a ride at 4:45 AM.  After a week of riding in the high 40’s in tights and long sleeves (Did I mention it was AUGUST?!), I declared it too cold to ride outside. I switched to rowing, promptly overdid it, and was out of commission over Labor Day weekend.

We can make ourselves miserable,
or we can make ourselves strong.
The amount of effort is the same.
~Pema Chödrön~

Desperate for a workout and unable to row, I dug out my winter turtleneck, heavy tights, thick headband, and fingered gloves, and I headed out on the road. By the time I got to my riding partner’s house, I had a big smile on my face. It felt great to be outside in the stillness of the morning. Fresh, cold air washed over my cheeks and filled my lungs. Muscles pumping. Eyes watering. Sheer joy. My first thought was Why didn’t we ride last week? It couldn’t have been the temperature because it was even colder that morning. Even though the temperature dropped, I was not cold. Save for my cheeks and lips, I was toasty in my winter gear.

Then I thought, why didn’t I just put my turtleneck on last week and ride? The answer slapped me in the forehead. Because it was August! My idea of August is hot weather and tank tops—even at the crack of dawn. August is a death grip on summer. It is the countdown to putting the hard top on and digging out my boots and jeans. Rather than accept the unseasonably cold temperatures, I bemoaned them and gave up. Riding clears my head and heals my body, so I was not at my best that last week of August.

A simple word changed everything: September. September is fall, of which I am a huge fan. September is leaves changing, and sunny, cold mornings. September is invigorating. September is the start of school (also a big fan of that). What was disappointing in August was energizing in September. September is the harbinger of the autumnal equinox and the count down to the winter solstice. I want to grab every second on the road before it is too dark to ride even with my high beams. I want to spin those wheels every mile I can before the miles are covered in ice. September fills me with ambition. Anything is possible in September.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
~John Steinbeck~

Except for the day that thunder and lightning hit as I was getting ready, I rode every day last week. My days started with clearing out my head and muscles. I was daily reminded that my perspective and my attitude can be changed in just a day by just one word. When I am in that place of disappointment, I must remember that it is all in how I think about the world. Bemoaning things that are, though I wish they weren’t, is pointless and only punishes me. With a single word, I can change my perception and attitude and, in so doing, change my whole experience. I can go from just to yet. I can go from never to soon. I can see the world as dwindling or blossoming. I can view the world from loss or hope. If I can choose one word, it will be hope.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See with new eyes and question your perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

Letting Clouds Get in the Way

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

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

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

And feather canyons everywhere
Looked at clouds that way

-Joni Mitchell

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

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

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

-Joni Mitchell

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

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

If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”

-Jim Rohn

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

The monsters under the bed are in your head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Don’t Mistake a Flower for a Weed

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Just Beneath the Surface

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.