Tag Archives: Photography

Everybody Needs A Walk -up Song

One of the great things about having a teenager is that I feel like I am cool-adjacent which is almost as good as being cool at my age. (I’m suspicious of 50-year-olds who are too cool.)   I have learned all kinds of things that I would be hopelessly ignorant of without her – like the correct meaning and usage of LOL and IKR, or what Snapchat is, or why anyone cares what the Kardashians had for lunch.  My husband and I lose cool points daily by sounding out those acronyms: lawl and icker. We think its hilarious.  She is not amused.  Fortunately for her, I definitely don’t want to Snapchat.  Texting is great.  No one can see you when you text.  Snapchat would even further increase the amount of time I feel it is necessary to wear makeup and do my hair.  However, there is a downside to texting.  I make a lot of mistakes texting because my fingers are too big for the screen and the letters are too small for my eyes. (Luckily, I have kind friends who, thus far, have not turned my daily errors into internet sensations.)  So, I will bask in the glory of being cool… adjacent.My most recent discovery was the walk-up song.  I have watched my share of sports, so I was aware that certain heart-pounding, chest-swelling, opponent-intimidating music is played as teams and players take the court or enter the ring.  What I did not know is that kids have walk up songs now.  I have to say that I think this is brilliant.  Frankly, I want one!  I love music.  I always have.  Maybe everyone is like this or maybe its just me.  But I feel like there is a soundtrack that marks out the times of my life.  I remember people, places and stories so vividly when certain songs come on.  When I hear Rodeo by Garth Brooks I think of my sister’s wedding day. My youngest sister and I drove all over Lake City looking for a Diet Coke howling with laughter when people stopped to stare at our elaborate bride’s maid dresses.  Peace washes over me when Country Roads by John Denver comes on and I am transported back in time to camping trips with my dad.  John Cougar Mellencamp’s Jack and Diane reminds me of hot summer nights and the taste of freedom you get when you are a senior and your best friend has questionable judgment. Bumping around dirt roads in the endless daylight of an Alaskan night comes back to me when Bruce Hornsby croons out The Way It is.  Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now brings my mom back gently dancing around the living room.  I can feel my baby rocking on my chest whenever the lilt of Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl spills from the speakers.  I won’t go into “anything by Van Halen” but, suffice it to say, it still puts a smile on my face.Music makes great memories.  A soundtrack is a special thing.  But a walk-up song would be so cool. Not cool-adjacent but actually cool.  Like today when I literally slayed suppression rules in Tableau (Trust me, in the data-nerd world, that is homerun, TKO, rock star stuff right there.) Thunder should have been playing! Test scores come in? We Are the Champions should be playing as I head to the podium.  The perfect photograph? Touch the Sky. Maybe it is the “pride cometh before the fall” ethic we have or maybe it is just a fear of appearing arrogant (or foolish) that keeps us from celebrating our successes and hard work.  But we should be celebrating the amazing things we do with the same passion that a teenage softball player does when she hears her walk up song playing on the way to home plate.  Perhaps a walk-up song at a board meeting would be inappropriate – ok definitely inappropriate – but one should be playing in my head none the less.  Rest assured it will be and I will be taking time to celebrate my successes too.I chose this photograph because I was so excited when I took it and about 20 more.  I was waiting for racing to start in San Diego when this Pelican came in for a landing, splashed around a bit and then took off.  It was like he was putting on a show for all the people waiting on shore. Walk up song?  Freebird comes to mind.PelicanFreebird
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 600 mm.)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Nothing Left Unsaid

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

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

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

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

Father and daughter on the beach

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Gamble

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

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

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

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

Women rowing

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

What the Best Coaches Know

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

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

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

birds

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

Don’t Miss the Joy in Grief

I was sitting at Finaghty’s Irish Pub the night before we were to celebrate the life of my father. I was with my husband and daughter and surrounded by my sisters, most of their families and my stepmom. Family had been arriving from out of town and were still trickling in.  We are not a demure clan.  At all. We are story tellers. We are bear huggers. We are belly laughers. We are family. When I arrived with my youngest sister, I was greeted with the most amazing hug by a niece I had not seen in a while. And as each person arrived there was more. My brother in law is a great hugger so there was a bit of a line up for that one. It’s hard to describe what it means to be part of this boisterous family.  I imagine we are a bit overwhelming to newcomers trying to follow the four conversations happening at once – picture the floor of the stock market. I picture a new boyfriend or girlfriend trying to find an opening like a squirrel trying to cross a four-lane highway in rush hour.  It would be daunting but totally worth it when you get to the other side.  As everyone was catching up, someone asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m OK.”  I had this moment of guilt wash over me.  I shouldn’t be feeling OK.  I just lost my dad. But I realized that in that very moment I was absolutely OK. If my dad had been there, he would have been better than just OK. He would have been elated. He loved it when everyone was home for dinner. And I do mean everyone. The more the better. Every seat in the house taken. Every room swollen with laughter.  Everyone in each other’s space- figuratively and actually. So, I let the guilt go.  I enjoyed the night surrounded by people I love.  I soaked up the laughter. It heals your heart. Listening to my brother in law and daughter tease each other about spilled orange juice and dented bumpers stitched my heart right up. Sharing stories about past holidays, youthful indiscretions and those little things that we thought were the biggest things at the time- that is the medicine. So right then, I was better than OK.

It occurred to me that really this is why we all come together to mark the passing of someone we love. We come to share our grief and mourn the loss but in so doing there are moments of joy and laughter that heal us.  It reminds of our shared history.  How we are woven together through this person that we loved. At the time when we most feel like we could unravel from the sharp pain of loss, we know we will be ok.  While there is a tear in the fabric, it won’t unravel.    Every generation at the table can look around and see the people who will be there to stitch up the tear when the time comes. I think that the rituals that we have are so important.  I come from a Catholic and a Greek Orthodox tradition which have similar rituals to mark our passing.  It might seem morose, but I have never dreaded them. It is the time in between that I feel adrift. When everyone comes together, I feel like I am wrapped up in this big blanket.

I remember I was splashing in the tub on the day of my great grandmother’s funeral when my parents came in to say they were leaving.   I asked where they were going.  I suppose my parents were trying to shield us from the pain of loss or maybe they were trying to preserve our innocence the way parents do. They said that they were going to say goodbye to Big Grandma (as we called this tiny woman).  All I can remember is being really sad that I didn’t get to go say goodbye.  It must have made a deep impression as I still remember that moment nearly five decades later.  I remembered it when my grandmother died not long after my daughter was born.  When I went to lead the rosary, my sister held her tight and rocked her (she has a gift for rocking babies). During the mass, I held her to my chest. I listened to her tiny breaths, feeling them on my neck, and it eased the grief.  Afterward, when everyone was gathered, she made the rounds from aunts to sisters to cousins to sweet old ladies I did not know. She was part of the joy that balanced the grief that day. With every giggle she stitched together hearts.

As we go through the next few days, celebrating the life of a man we loved and mourning the sharp pain of losing him, there will be moments of joy. And we should savor every one of the moments. We will see people we haven’t seen in years and those years will not diminish our love for them. There will be joy in catching up. There will be joy in remembering. There will be joy just knowing we are part of a family and community. We should not miss one minute of that joy.

I chose this photograph because because it embodies joy to me.  I caught this eagle soaring over the Skagit River on a cold, clear winter morning just soaring- joyfully!

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Soaring
(1/1600 sec., f/6.3, 400 ISO, 450 mm)

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

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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.

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!

DSC01743Giggling Girls
(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.

DSC_03173_edited-1.JPGCome On!
(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!

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(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.

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Seeing in Silence

I am a morning person.  I love the stillness of the morning.  I love the way the groggy silence envelops me. Everything slows down.  Without the noise that fills every other space in the rest of my day, I can see so much more clearly. I can hear my own voice so much more loudly.  My favorite mornings are the cold fall mornings when the earth is on the verge of waking up.  The air is crisp and cold. A veil of fog hangs from branches pelting my cheeks. My breath billows and clings.

This is the perfect time for me to shoot. Without all of the extraneous noise, I see things I would have surely missed. Distracted by screens and ringtones even conversation, I miss so much.  It’s not just the silent animals miraculously camouflaged in their habitat that I would miss.  It is fully appreciating the scene unfolding before my eyes. Frost painting the last golden leaves.  The crunch of soil wet just the day before.   A pallette of golds and greens fading subtly to brown.  Sharp sunlight sneaking through without its heat.

Seeing the world in silence is seeing from a completely different perspective.  I am keenly aware of the fleeting beauty that is nature. The impermanence of life that is the cost of the gift.  When I see in silence, I see the magnitude of capturing a unique moment in an ever-changing life.

The photograph below was taken one fall morning.  I was watching a Great Blue Heron hunting in the low tide backlit by the rising sun. Shadows of abandoned pilings reached across the water.  One stray branched curled behind the bird.

Perhaps you are not a morning person. I encourage you to find that place and time of day you are most relaxed. Go off the grid. Unplug.  Even for a short time, see the world in the silence.

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Early Bird
(1/640 sec. f/6, 800 ISO, 420 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Learn… to Let Go

When my daughter started rowing four years ago, I had a lot to learn. And of course, the ink wasn’t even dry on the check for rowing camp before I was grabbing my camera and heading for the shore. Needless to say that even shooting wildlife, I was used to a much slower subjects. Everything is a sloth next to a junior rower. Though I felt really comfortable working with my gear, there was just so much I didn’t know about shooting a race on water and it seemed like I was in the middle of figuring one thing out when the boats zoomed by – picture the aquatic version of a roadrunner cartoon.

As with all photography, scouting the location is key.  This was no exception.  The first race, I took about 50 excellent shots of backs.  I couldn’t even guess which back lived at my house because every person in the boat had a long, blonde ponytail.  I was at the perfect angle for the start of the race but not for the finish.  The first thing I learned to let go of was the start of the race.  (I still watch it and cheer obnoxiously. I just don’t shoot it.) You don’t have to shoot everything.  Know what you want to see.  I wanted to see the sheer exertion on the faces of these amazing rowers.  I wanted to see every muscle flex against the oars.  I wanted to see the joy of crossing the finish line ahead of another boat.  I wanted to capture those unguarded moments of courage.  I learned to let go of trying to capture everything.

After those first races, I spent a lot of time agonizing over those “pretty good” shots.  Oh, I had a trashcan full of pictures I will deny ever taking.  But in the beginning, there were far more shots I should have let go of.  I had the best of intentions.  I hoped a little cropping and touch up would make the photo usable.  I wanted to have a shot for every athlete.  I learned to let go of volume and noise. I learned to let go of settling for usable.  I strive now for that shot that someone would want to hang on their wall.  I’m even thrilled when I hear my work is someone’s profile pic- especially if that someone is a teenager (It’s the ultimate honor).

Shooting outdoors on water adds the elements of weather, sunlight (or lack thereof), reflection, and spray.  Add in the race elements of distance, motion, and boat lengths.  All of these conspire against the perfect shot.  You can adjust for them, but you can’t control them. In Washington, some of these change repeatedly during the race.  The first time I fully appreciated all of those elements, I left the course with a screaming headache.  I’ve learned you cannot shoot with a clenched jaw.  I learned to let go of the need to control every element of the shot. That just leaches the fun out of the experience of photography.  You might miss an amazing moment as you fine tune everything.

The photo below is a perfect example. It was taken at Tail of the Lake on Lake Union in Seattle.  The sun was coming up behind the cox but it was periodically shielded by clouds.  I had a polarizer on my 600 mm leans but as the race crossed in front of me where I stood on a raised platform the angle of reflection changed. Photos ranged from blue to silver as a result.  I could have tried to readjust the polarizer. I could have focused on just one spot in the race.  If I had not let go of all that, I would have missed this: two brothers racing. The freshman is coxing for the senior in stroke seat.  It was poetic on so many levels.  They are all in:  completely focused on those final meters to the finish line.  Good thing I let go or I would have missed this moment.

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Teamwork
(1/1000 sec., f/6.3, 800 ISO, 600 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Don’t Be Afraid To Fail

I’d like to tell you that I’m one of those photographers who gets a brilliant idea for a shoot and then instinctively knows all of the right camera settings, the perfect location, and just the right camera angle to pull it off in one shot. I imagine this hypothetical artist getting up before the crack of dawn dressed in stylishly distressed L L Bean. An eager intern waits breathlessly as the photographer selects just the right equipment and then, as if given the most precious and generous gift, trudges about hauling the gear. Arriving at the scene, the intern scurries about setting up the equipment while the photographer gazes pensively at the tableau, chin in hand. She snaps. The camera appears. She adjusts the settings and peers through the viewfinder. With the most parsimonious of motions, she hits the trigger. Turning sharply with a wave of her hand, she signals they are done and victorious.

I’d like to tell you I’m that photographer. Oh I get brilliant ideas. I’m always looking at my surroundings and imagining them in all their digital glory. Stylishly dressed in LL Bean – uh no. Intern? Nope. But I do have an amazing husband who doesn’t mind hiking up on a bridge in the middle of the night with me or driving a couple hundred miles to check out something I heard was going to be perfect.

Take the photograph below. As summer burned off, I’d been watching the fog seep across the Snohomish valley snaking along the river. As I dropped off the hill each morning, I could see the spires of evergreens poking through. The landscape was punctuated by a raised rail track. I thought I knew the perfect spot. It was high enough to look down on the fog but free from power lines that would scar the picture. We hiked up on a bridge over the river on Highway 2 well before dawn and waited for the magical morning sun. The fog was too diffuse that morning. I didn’t get the thick contrast I wanted. I learned that meteorology is important to a photographer. The bridge rail was in my shot no matter what I did. I learned my height can be a problem and I need something to lift me up. Also bridges have safety features that keep you away from the edge. I learned I don’t like leaning over water with my beloved camera. I had a tripod so I could keep the shutter open longer but I didn’t factor in the vibration from cars. You wouldn’t think there would be any at that time day but there were and they shook the bridge. I learned the earth is a better foundation than a bridge.

The truth is I probably get a good shot about 1 in 5 times. (And that might be generous.) I recently got a new computer and transferred over 23000 Images. That means I’ve shot over 100,000. This doesn’t include the years BD (Before Digital). I have boxes and boxes of those. I fail far more often than I am successful. And failing is a skill we need to learn to do better. We live in this instant, reward-based culture. We give up too easily. Some things take a lifetime to perfect. The fact is life isn’t instant or reward-based. We learn from failure. We learn the skill better ultimately. I’m a better photographer for having to figure out what I didn’t do correctly. I’m a better person for my failures. I learned perseverance. I learned compassion. I learned how to solve problems. (According to my dad, I got character.) Don’t get me wrong, I love a trophy and an A+ but I only value the ones I got the hard way. The ones born of struggle hang on the walls of my heart and mind.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Open to the Unexpected 

One Sunday morning – ok practically the middle of the night- I convinced my husband to accompany me on a quest to shoot the sunrise over the Port of Everett. I knew the exact spot. I had glimpsed in passing these abandoned pilings of piers unused for decades. They had an almost romantic quality. I could see grizzled men tying up tenders and wrangling flotillas of logs. In my mind, the sun would rise slowly over my back revealing the shore bathed in golden sunlight. The tide of course would be halfway out exposing fragile creatures scurrying for cover. The glossy texture of the lazy tide would contrast perfectly with the grit of rock and barnacles. Predatory shorebirds would swoop and soar in the tableau.

Here’s what really happened. I waited forever and then boom- full on sunlight. Why? Because there was a massive hill behind me. Mind you, I “glimpsed” that hill about a thousand times driving by the waterfront. But I didn’t even think of its impact to the light of the rising sun. Needless to say no sunrise pictures were taken that day. Just as I was getting really creative in my cursing about getting up pointlessly at 0 dark 30, my husband spotted in the distance a Great Blue Heron hunting beneath some burned out pilings. I quickly changed to my 600 mm lens and discovered something really amazing. The pilings were covered in nesting pairs of Great Blue Herons. They were hidden from the road by a copse of trees and camouflaged on shore by the scorched wood. It was incredible to watch them interact and feed their young. I got so many great shots that day and went back to watch them raise their young throughout the summer.

On your photographic journey, as in life, be open to the unexpected. Not every shot is going to be what you thought it would be. But there is always a shot to be had. I was so fortunate to have a spotter that day (who incidentally took me out for breakfast after our adventure- bonus). But now I know to look around if what I am looking at isn’t working for me. That’s a life lesson right there. Finally, it’s totally worth it to get up at 0 dark 30. It’s a whole world we are missing out on.

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Out of the Ashes
(1/500 sec., f/6, 360 mm, 1400 ISO)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

The Digital Experiment

If you’re old as I am, you probably remember buying film. Film was a relationship. Film was like giving up the lease on your apartment and moving in with your boyfriend. You committed. You committed to black-and-white or color. You committed to speed. You committed to brand. You loaded it into your camera and unless you were really good at reeling it back in and forwarding it to just the right spot (and I’m not -hence the scary ghost pictures of my dog at the beach- but more about that later), you shot the roll – the whole roll. And then you waited for days for the film to be developed.  If you were lucky, you had more good shots than bad ones.

I’m sure I am offending many purists out there, and I do apologize, but I was so excited the day my husband bought me my first digital camera. In reflection, he may have been trying to pry his 35 mm Minolta out of my hands and, believe me, I was fiercely clutching it for fear of missing my infants first everything. He might also have been trying to prevent bankruptcy due to film processing.

There I was. Digital. I could take as many pictures as I wanted to.  I could delete them! Before printing! I could see each picture as soon as I hit the trigger.  My first digital was a Nikon D40X. I felt like Zoolander trying to operate a computer. So, so many buttons and dials. I confess to an extended period of shooting on the automatic modes.  But then I remembered- I could take as many pictures as I wanted to! I could delete them!  I screwed up my courage and turned the dial to A. Before you knew it, I was taking the same picture of my dogs at every f stop.  I turned to S and started in on my daughter (dogs have little patience for modeling). I took the same picture at different shutter speeds. I even made her wave her hand around (she quickly lost patience then as well).

Now I also have a Nikon D5300.  I really like this camera.  I still shoot on sport mode when I am at the races and I don’t want to miss anything.  But once I realized shooting on manual wasn’t a lifelong commitment to a shot, I felt free to experiment.  They don’t all turn out just like I imagined they would when I was planning the shot but experimenting has become part of the fun of shooting for me.  I love trying different combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  It is amazing to see the interplay of light creating variations in color.  Take the photos below, for example. They were shot as the sun came up over the harbor in Sequim, Washington on the morning of my best friend’s wedding. She was getting married that evening on the same spot I took these pictures.  I wanted to catch a meaningful sunrise.  But I digress.  These shots were taken within minutes of each other using different combinations.  I had an idea of what I wanted to use I set that early.  After that, I just took advantage of the beautiful scene and silence to experiment.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! Don’t be afraid to shoot in manual.  It’s digital. You don’t have to commit. There will be a sunrise tomorrow too.

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(1/50 sec. f/8 100 ISO, 600 mm)

DSC_3051l.jpg(1/20 sec. f/8 100 ISO, 150 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Ordinary Magic

We are bombarded with images.  Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook deliver cute, scary, heartwarming, devastating, lush, and stark to our mental doorsteps every day.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a photographic documentary of a puppy raised with a lion cub who become lifelong friends as much as the next person.  I just think that we are exposed to ordinary magic every day and we miss it because we are just not present.  (That is probably a heavy handed thing to say – coming from someone trying to entice you to look at my images – so I will apologize for the potential hypocrisy and move on.) Take this image for example.  Two girls, the daughters of best friends, separated by eight years in age.  The older has been holding the younger since she was born. And since that time, they have weathered the normal and not so normal challenges of childhood.  Though at times fighting like real sisters might, this picture captures the truth of their relationship. It is a late summer night by the fire and the younger is cold. She cuddles up on the older girl’s lap in her blanket.  They are rapt looking at selfies they just took on a phone.  Ordinary magic.

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I think it is amazing that everyone carries a camera now, if only on their phone.  The pictures my friends post on backpacking trips or vacations are amazing.  Whether you are carrying your Nikon or your iPhone, don’t forget to capture the ordinary magic that is  right in front of you.  Be present.  Look in wonder not just at the larger landscape of life but of the single tree or branch or leaf.  And don’t miss the things that are perhaps not traditionally considered beautiful which might hide that ordinary magic.  The image below was taken on the Snohomish River.  It was low tide at the mouth and I was waiting for the launch to move out.  As I started to look at the bank through my lens, I was captivated by the contrast of mud and rotting pilings to grass and reeds on shore.  More so even when I discovered that the grass reflected in the lazy water creating an image like a watercolor painting.  Mud and rotting pilings are not widely viewed as lovely but lovely was not what I was going for. Ordinary magic: the underlying beauty in all things revealed here as the tide receded.

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So here is my advice, keep your camera with you.  Be present and see with your heart.  Capture those amazing and rare landscapes you come across.  More importantly, capture those ordinary magical moments that make your breath hitch and your heart clench even when you look at them many, many years later.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.

Connecting Through Images

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I suppose like all photographers I began very young.  My first memory was of my dad lying on the ground in Volunteer Park in Seattle shooting up and to an awkward angle as brilliantly colored cyclist raced wildly around the corner on the knife-blade edges of racing slicks.  I was fascinated and I was hooked. I carried around a cheap point and click for years wasting who knows how much on cartridge film and developing.  It was like Christmas every time we stopped at the Photomat to pick up the 4 x 6 glossies.  Half of those were blurred or obscured by an errant thumb.  But the ones that turned out, no matter how mundane the subject, took my breath away.  It was like capturing time itself. I was so excited when I was finally old enough to use my dad’s Nikon camera. I listened, rapt, as he described f stops, shutter speed and ISO.  I committing to memory words like aperture and exposure.  The heavy weight of the camera hanging from the strap around my neck. The frustration of threading the film. Learning to hear the film slipping back into the can as I rewound. All of this was magical.  Photography connects us viscerally to each other, to the earth, and to the past.  Sepia images of our ancestors look back at us with our own eyes. Nature and industry are juxtaposed in the landscape.  Animals play out ancient dramas.  All of it frozen in time on copper sheets or cellulose or in millions of pixels magically connecting us.  For me this is always the challenge- capturing an image that evokes a visceral reaction.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2017.