Tag Archives: Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See with new eyes and question your perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

It’s Never About The Furniture

Some time ago, dear friends of mine retired and moved from Washington to Texas. I am terrible at goodbyes. That should be evident by the fact that this blog has been sitting half-written for nearly a year. I had intended to write it the morning after their going away party. I started to, but the words got stuck in my heart on the way to my head and so my fingertips just sat on the keyboard, wordless. I still miss them – my friends, not my words. I think that the sheer volume of transitions over the last year have sort of dislodged the blockage in my heart, though. My head is full, and my fingertips are ready.


Their going away party was a small affair of our closest friends. With more than a decade of shared celebrations and sorrows, we are very open and comfortable. So, it was not a surprise when they had a spirited marital debate on the disposition of an old desk that had, apparently, not made it onto the truck yet. I can’t recall who wanted to summarily dispose of the desk and who wanted to drag it half-way across the country. Therefore, I won’t choose sides. (However, to be completely transparent, I tend to root for my own team out of general loyalty to the sisterhood.) At any rate, the desk discussion billowed up like a cumulus cloud soaring off the Sound and hitting the Cascades. The marital debate began to look like a storm. To prevent the drops from turning into a flood, someone, possibly me, pointed out that it wasn’t about the desk. I should mention that these are two of the most loving, nurturing people I know. As a couple, they are the gold standard in relationships. They share a beautiful love that touches everyone they meet. Let’s be honest, though, moving could cause even Mother Theresa or Gandhi to consider abandoning their commitments to peace and love. Goodbyes are stressful. Transitions are nerve-racking. And it is never about the furniture.

So, what is it that would cause us to dig our heels in and risk relationships to protect our pride? It is about what we cannot face. It is about our feelings—deep, irrational, inexplicable, often contradictory, feelings. It is about what we cannot communicate because the truth is lodged in our hearts. But it is never about the furniture.


More than ever, this last year has been a seemingly endless stream of endings and beginnings. From outright changes to minor pivots, we have transitioned hundreds of times from what we have always done to what we are able to do now or what we must do now. It feels like none of that is what we want to do, though. To me, all of these changes are tiny goodbyes. Not all are bad. Some I even take in stride, avoiding suffering through the acceptance of what is and cannot be changed. Other things are like wearing someone else’s clothing. I am grateful that I have something to wear, but it doesn’t fit quite right. I feel awkward and annoyed. Wearing a mask fits in this category.


There are also small things that throw me off my game completely— my ‘desks’. They cause me inwardly (and outwardly if I know that you love me and will forgive my ridiculousness) to pitch a fit like a three-year-old. Take last night, I realized that I left my second Hydroflask at work. Yes. The second one. I now have two sitting on my desk. It is the weekend. I like to drink water from my Hydroflask when I workout. I was mentally pitching a fit (because not even someone who loves me should have to put up with that ridiculousness). The truth is, though, it’s not really about the Hydroflask. I have many, many water bottles. It’s not about the water bottle. Forgetting the water bottle is about feeling always a little off balance these days. Despite having years on the job, it is about feeling a little less competent in this new environment where I have to consider things I have never had to consider before— masks; social distancing; temperature checks; two stage clustered, stratified random sampling (don’t ask). I can handle all of that. I don’t want to have to handle all that. It is missing my team and kids, and communicating in all 3 dimensions. It is wondering how this has changed us all and what those changes mean for the future. It is not about a water bottle.

So, if you are like me, and you find yourself reacting passionately or actually pitching a fit, give yourself some grace. Ask yourself if it is really about the object or situation before you. If it is not, try to unblock your heart so that your feelings can reach your mind and mouth. Start a journal. Share your feelings with someone who loves you and will forgive any ridiculousness just because it is not ridiculous to you. Keeping those feelings bottled up and unexamined won’t make them go away. We are all in this together. It is never about the furniture.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2021

I need a heartbeat.

Like most people working from home, I have spent the last 13 weeks video conferencing. My vibrant, three-dimensional world has been reduced to grainy images intermittently stilted by poor bandwidth, virtual backgrounds signaling our desire for sandy beaches and mountain retreats, and a grid of flattened faces. To be clear, I am grateful for all of that. Without it, the isolation would have been unbearable for me. I am sure I would have, in turn, made it unbearable for my husband and daughter. Still, there has been something missing. Something I craved. Something more elemental than mere virtual communication. It took a puppy, a bike ride, and a march to help me see that what was missing was my heartbeat. 

Two months ago, we brought home our new puppy, Delta. She was still in that phase where she slept about 18 hours a day. True to the breed, our little Boxer is a snuggler. She wants to be cuddled up tight to a warm body. She doesn’t much care who it is, either. When she was tiny, she fit on a pillow on my lap under my desk. She slept peacefully for hours as I worked. As she grew, she started to fall asleep sitting upright. It looked uncomfortable, and my instincts told me to gently push her into the lying position. Boxers are a willful breed. Even as young as she was, I could tell Delta was all Boxer in this regard. She resisted, insisting that she fall asleep sitting up with her head on my chest. It was awkward, but the truth was I loved it. It reminded me of my daughter as a baby, who also insisted on falling asleep on my chest. I realized they were falling asleep on my heartbeat. And that is what I had been missing – being in a room full of heartbeats. I longed to be in a room with the special heartbeats in my life- my family and friends, my team and co-workers, the children and staff in our schools. I missed all of those heartbeats.  

A month ago, the early morning light starting peeking through at 5 am. Though still cold, I needed to get back on the road. My best friend, not the dawn enthusiast that I am, pumped up her tires and raised her heartbeat too with only the slightest groan. I cannot describe the utter joy of leg pumping and blood pounding, I get from a fast, hard ride with my best friend. I can feel my heartbeat in the freedom of a cold wind in my face and the silence of the morning shared with someone who gets it, gets me. Heartbeats who have shared births, deaths and marriages, wins and losses, triumphs and failures, and more than a few scars – those are the best heartbeats. 

Last week, I went to a Black Lives Matter march in our community, and I was surrounded by heartbeats. I was with other staff who I saw every day, though I had not been physically near in 3 months. Actually, I was seeing far less of them at the event because our faces were covered by masks and our bodies cocooned in rain gear. Even obscured, I could feel their heartbeats. I was in a crowd of people who vibrated with hope, love, and commitment. I could feel my soul fill with the heartbeats. I was overjoyed to be standing with colleagues who I respect and admire because they feed my heartbeat. I am fortunate to work for someone who gets the importance of a heartbeat and the simple, but generous and powerful, gift of bringing heartbeats together to eat and share. 

To be clear, I want everyone to be safe. COVID-19 is a horrible disease. We need to stop the spread. We should all be covering our faces, washing our hands, and maintaining social distancing. It may be annoying to do all that, but it is so worth it to feel the heartbeats in your life. Put a mask on. Sit ten feet apart across a fire pit. Go for a walk two arms lengths apart. Put out 3 tables instead of one for dinner. Shout if you have to do that to be heard. But laugh and cry because you need to do that too. Delta is not wrong. We all need to feel the heartbeats in our lives.  

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2020

Birds of a Feather

My mother’s psychics says, everyone essentially wants 

the same thing a everyone else, 

a sense of belonging, a coming home. 

– Ada Limon 

I don’t think you have to be psychic to know that everyone wants to feel like they belong.  There is certainly a body of research to support the importance of having a sense of belonging. Sadly, if you watch the news, you can see the tragic consequences that result when people feel that they do not belong.  I have been very fortunate to have worked on a project for the last few years around the social emotional learning of children and teens.  Sense of belonging features prominently in those metrics.  Not surprisingly, sense of belonging impacts learning.

As a teenager I moved three times in five years to radically different environments. I moved from a small Catholic school to suburban public middle school in Washington State, to an enormous public suburban high school in Georgia, to a small rural high school in Washington State. The communities I moved between were radically different. That may have contributed to my feeling like an outsider. One day I was attending morning mass in my navy and grey uniform in a highly structured and calm learning environment. The next day I was in my “after –school” clothes moving hourly through a noisy, crowded hall to a new class.  Going from the Pacific Northwest to Georgia was even more jarring. Everything about me was different. I spoke with an accent.  I dressed differently. I had a different understanding of what it meant to be a girl.  In each of these settings, what was acceptable to adults and my peers was radically different.  In the first two moves, I deeply wanted to belong. Frankly, I changed myself to belong. In the final move, I gave up changing myself and decided I was who I was. I would rather be alone than pretend to be someone else.

Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging   

have the courage to be imperfect.  

 -Brene Brown 

In my 15 year-old mind, I thought those were the only two options: morph yourself to belong in a new community or choose not to belong at all. What I did not know at the time was that I actually created the conditions for a true sense of belonging by being my true self.  The truth was that morphing myself to fit their styles, ideals, and habits of others did not give me a sense of belonging. It made me socially acceptable which is not the same thing as being accepted or belonging. Social acceptance and popularity can be detrimental to one’s sense of belonging because they require one to conform to the standards of a group in order to belong. This may mean denying your authentic self in order to feel accepted by the group.  It means giving up parts of yourself in exchange for being accepted.  That does not give you a sense of belonging.

Our sense of belonging can never be greater  

than our level of self-acceptance.  

-Brene Brown 

My college-aged daughter wrote a blog on sense of belonging recently.  I realized how differently she conceptualizes it than I did at her age.  Though I certainly would not want to imply that her experience is the experience of all young adults, it does give me some hope that we are making inroads in social-emotional learning leading to a healthier sense of self and of relationships.

It’s also about trusting deeply within yourself that not only

do you belong right where you are, but also that you belong there

as your purest and most authentic self. 

To me a sense of belonging is to feel so at peace

and at home within ourselves that we can trust

there is a place for us in this world and at every step along our journey. 

-Shannan foodfearsfitness.wordpress.com  

 

As I read her words, I reflected on those times when I had a deep sense of belonging.  The fact is that I have been blessed to feel a sense of belonging in many facets of my life. I belong to a pack of friends who understand what it means to be a woman raising a family while working in a leadership role. I belong to a writing group that feeds my creativity. I belong to a community on social media that inspires and encourages. I belong to a spiritual community. I belong to a sisterhood. I belong in my family.  My daughter reminded me of the beauty and gift that is a sense of belonging.

  • I belong when I am able to be myself and be unconditionally accepted.
  • I belong when I am able to be vulnerable.
  • I belong when what we share deeply is greater than any difference.
  • I belong when I can be challenged in my thinking without being challenged for thinking.
  • I belong when we choose the greater good for each other.

Find your posse, pack, band, crew, pride, squad, tribe, family, club, circle, or flock.  There is one out there just for you, the true you. Whatever you do, stop trying to fit yourself in. Find the place you fit.

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

The Appreciation Equation (You might want to sit down. Turns out, it’s exponential.)

Thursday night I got the game ball. It felt so great!  In my dubious athletic career, I never got the game ball.  I have thrown a game ball. I have caught a game ball- once, in the back of the head.  I have dribbled a game ball, shot a game ball, even caught a game ball (once, right in the nose).  As a coach, I have even given the game ball. I have never been given the game ball, until last Thursday night.  I was given it in appreciation of my work which is about as far from athletic as you can get: data analysis, assessment and research.  I felt truly honored to be recognized for my work. Of course, the first thing I did was send a picture of the ball to my husband and daughter who are my biggest cheerleaders.

gameball

My sly cell phone pic of the game ball for my family.

They were so excited for me.  Then I remembered the 14 letters my daughter gave me for my birthday! I remembered that one was entitled “Open when you are a data badass”.  If there was ever a good reason to open that letter, this was it. I could not wait to get home to read it.  Well, I can tell you that I was definitely feeling that letter. Here is what it said (used with permission of the author):

“So, I don’t know when you’ll be reading this, but I can almost guarantee that I’ve already called you and asked you how to use Excel or had some number-y struggle at school.  Not only are you a data badass at work but it turns out you’re a data badass at my university too:). It has always made me laugh and smile the way you get so excited about data at your work.  I hope whatever you did today to be a data badass made you excited, and even made the Superintendent tell you that you’re a Rockstar!  Give me a call and tell me about your data badass-ness today!”

My first thought was “I think my kid might be psychic.”  Then, I just took a moment to soaked that letter  up.  It made me feel very special. She knows I love my work. Clearly, she shares my joy when I come bouncing home with some great story about analyzing data. I have about the nerdiest job that there is, and she gets just as excited as I do, not because she cares about data, because she knows and cares about me. She appreciates me- especially when I help with her “number-y struggles”.

Train your people so well that they could work anywhere.

Treat your people so well that they won’t want to.

-Branson

I started to wonder why appreciation or gratitude can evoke such powerful emotions.  Of course, that led to research. This will not be a surprise to anyone who knows me.  I came upon The Science of Gratitude by Summer Allen (University of California Berkley, May 2018). I learned that I am not the only person wondering how gratitude benefits people, and why both giving and receiving it feels so great.  There is now a field of gratitude research which, though in its infancy, gave Dr. Allen fodder for 72 compelling pages on the subject.  (I should note that there is some debate on the relationship between appreciation and gratitude in the research. I am lumping them together as more research is needed.) In addition to citing studies of improved health outcomes for people who practice gratitude, I was struck by research that suggested “practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit (Summers, p. 17).”  Gratitude begets altruism.  Think about that. Expressing gratitude makes you feel better in and of itself, and it makes you feel even better when you do something that benefits someone else. It is like an avalanche of gratitude.  It’s an exponential equation. I express gratitude. I feel great. I do something nice for someone else as a result. I feel even better, and the person I help feels appreciated. So, they feel gratitude. If they do something nice for someone else, they will feel great! It will be completely out of control. People will be grateful for other people with no expectation of reward, and yet, they will feel rewarded.

Have an attitude of gratitude.

-Hinckley

What if we intentionally practiced gratitude?  What if we intentionally taught our children to practice gratitude?  Practicing the skill of identifying the people and things we are grateful for, and then acting on that gratitude, has lasting positive physical and emotional effects individually and collectively.  I am sure of it. The research backs it up.

I propose an experiment that I am going to call Passing the Game Ball. I would like you to join me in it and then share your experience by leaving a comment.

  1. For one week, make a list every day of at least 5 things you are grateful for.
  2. Each day, express your gratitude directly to one person you come in contact with. Look them in the eye, give them a smile, and say it loud and proud: “You deserve the game ball! Thanks for…..” (Or write a personal note if that is more your style.)
  3. See if expressing gratitude for someone else feels just as great as receiving gratitude.
  4. See if expressing gratitude makes you want to do it more.

I bet we could start an avalanche! I’ll start. I am so grateful for all of the people who read my blog and take the time to share their experiences and perspectives. You have enriched my life.

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019.

 

Copyright

The Busyness of Avoiding

My father tore the carpet out of our house a few weeks before my sister’s wedding.  The carpet started out the color of sand on a southern beach.  After years of being trampled on by firewood toting teenagers, it had grown dingy and rough.  Once he got a thought in his head, it was like a worm boring in deep and taking up residence. He bought planks of tongue and groove hardwood and piled them high in the living room.  He was invisible save for the tapping of his rubber mallet against the slats.  He moved with the deliberation of a military exercise from the dining room to the living room.  With a hand-held electric sander, he methodically planed each surface on his knees.  In paint-splattered Levi’s, which he was perpetually pulling up, he knelt on the floor and brushed each piece with a thick coat of varnish. It was exasperating to watch. With each painstaking stroke, he seemed more and more oblivious to the tornado of wedding preparations going on around him. He was blind and deaf to the herd of women stomping their feet and tapping their watches.  This was not the first time he engaged in a Herculean task as the timer counted down to a graduation or wedding.  I didn’t understand him at the time. I thought him inconsiderate at best, selfish at worst. But I was wrong, so wrong.

For the last year, I have been planning a party that I have known, for 19 years, was going to happen in the second week of June. I thought I had learned a lesson from my father:  Don’t drive your family insane by doing an enormous job right before a big event. I planned ahead.  A year ago, we tore out our rustic Ode-to-Alaska firepit, and built a circular patio large enough for a crowd and safe enough for old ankles.  We built a 110-foot raised garden to fill with lovely flowers.  We replaced the lawns, which our energetic boxers had decimated, and built a dog run to contain their enthusiasm.  We weeded, planted, and barked.  It is beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be.

I was wrong, though. I did not learn that lesson from my dad.  The truth is that I dragged my heels on the smaller details. Now that we are a few short weeks away, I am in a flurry, ordering photographs, creating announcements, planning a menu, and locating plates, napkins and decorations in green and black.  I have a long list of things to do and an even longer list of things to worry about. Generally, I am driving everyone around me insane.

I think I have procrastinated, something I am loathed to do, because having a million things to do leaves no time to think about what is really happening.  Our only child is graduating from high school. The glassware in the hutch needs to be washed.  She will be going off to college soon. I must dust the slats of the blinds. When I slow down for even a moment, my chest is heavy and my breath catches in my throat. The entryway has spiderwebs. Even though this is the right thing and she is ready, I am grieving the loss. Did we pressure wash the patio? Soon I will not see her every day. I will not have those right-before-bedtime mother-daughter talks about the little and the big things in life. I need to borrow a cooler for the pop.  I won’t chuckle at her admonishment of my loud music and excessive Tweeting.  We will need lots of ice.  She won’t be exploding through the door ready to tell us the amazing thing she did that day.  The windows need washing.  We won’t hear about the drama of everyday life. I need to order the food soon. I won’t be close enough to hug her when she needs comfort – or when I do.  I need to move tables out for the food.  Mother – daughter dinner dates will be bi-annual events.  The flowerpots in the front need planting.  Adventure Days will be rare. I need to get a journal so guests can write their advice to her. I will miss her laughter and tears. Should I have bought more decorations? I will miss her wicked wit. I will miss her soft heart and hard head. I need to order more pictures. And so, I make lists. Before I cross that last item off, I add one to the bottom. I should refinish the hardwood floors.

I am my father’s daughter. But I am also my daughter’s mother, and, though I may not have learned the lesson from him, I have learned this lesson from her. I must not fill every second with the busyness of avoiding feeling these feelings. More importantly, I must not fill up every second with busyness and miss out on spending time with her.

 

I took this picture on the highway near Verlot.  It was such a beautiful day and we were shooting her senior pictures. I snapped it as she was walking down the road.  It seemed fitting for this post.

Walking Away

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Seeing Through the Memories of Your Heart 

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

We see ourselves as we are now,

knowing what we once were. 

Those who love us, though, 

see us through the memories in their hearts.

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

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

Scott Bird hunting

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

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

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

Who are you missing from the memories of your heart?

scott laying pipe 2

scott-laying-pipe.jpg

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Kindergarten- Where we all belong.

I started my day in kindergarten yesterday.  Every day that I get to be in a kindergarten is a great day.  First of all, they are adorable. Right there, you are guaranteed to start your day with a smile.  They bounce and bop down the halls, happy as clams that it is Friday morning and the school day has started. Everything is a fresh adventure.  That kind of joy is contagious. It’s winter so they look a little like turtles with their fat backpacks, all bundled up, heads peeking out of their parka hoods. Brightly colored sneakers and rain boots with ducks and frogs fidget in a line outside the classroom door- itching to get in.  They are a hive of activity storing their gear in cubbies, high-fiving and knuckle-knocking their buddies like it’s been months and not 16 hours since they last checked in. They help each other without being asked and without judgment. They accept help gratefully.  They cannot wait to share- share their space, share their pencils, share their expertise in tying shoes, and share their ideas and opinions (I got quite an earful on the topic of pet ownership).  A friend is picked to help with an errand.  Hugs are given to someone who looks sad.  They take each other by the hand unabashedly. They don’t seem to notice their differences. They are a community and it is clear they all belong.

This visit made me think about when it is that we start, as humans, to wonder if we belong. How is it that we start to feel like we don’t belong in a place or with a group of people?  Maybe it starts when we begin to notice how we are different from each other.  I like to play in the woods and get dirty. You like to read. I like to play basketball. You like to sing. You are quiet. I am loud.  Maybe it is when we start to hear from adults that those differences have a value. She’s such a tomboy. He can’t throw a baseball.  He has a beautiful voice. You’re always such a mess with dirt all over your jeans.  Her painting is beautiful.  You are so talented. Well, there are other things you are good at I am sure.  Maybe it is when we start to identify with those values. I am good at this. I am not good at that. Whatever the process, we look for a place we think we belong.  We look for a place that feels right- where we feel right.  We look for our people, our posse, our pack.  It feels good to belong.  I think that is the natural order of things.

But wouldn’t it be great if we never asked ourselves, “Is this where I belong?”   Wouldn’t it be great if we never wondered, “Is this place for me?”  You see, as soon as we do that, we limit ourselves.  We take ourselves out of the game.  We buy the artificial “goodness” and “badness” of our individual characteristics.  We miss out on the opportunity to learn new things- things we might actually like doing and even have a talent for doing. We miss out on meeting new people. We miss the chance to find out that those differences, which we think divide us, really enrich us. We miss out on the very real possibility that we have more in common than we think. We miss out on the high-fiving, knuckle-knocking, hand-holding joy that comes from knowing what every kindergartener knows – we all deserve to belong.

Maybe instead of worrying whether or not we belong, we should be thinking about how we can make others feel like they do.

 

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Make a Habit of It

It’s 4:15 AM and my REM-induced travels are abruptly ended by my clock radio blaring Miranda Lambert. In silence, I get up, get dressed, and brush my teeth. In the workout room, I turn on the fan and put my bike shoes on.  I spend 30 minutes on the bike, change shoes and put in 30 minutes on the Erg. I turn off the fan, turn out the lights in the work out room, and shut the door so that Buttercup does not eat any more of my gear.  She is a young Boxer with a wicked addiction to Blistex.  In the kitchen, I make a smoothie and drink it while checking my emails.  I take a shower, put on my makeup and get dressed.  I load up the Jeep, open the garage door, turn the Jeep on, back out and go to work. I do this every weekday.  Mostly with unconscious precision.  Oh sure, I have occasionally shown up for work in dark navy heels when I should have worn black but that is more an aging eyesight issue than an attention issue.  I have never, for example, backed out before opening the garage door.  The fact is that all of that is habit.  I do it mostly without thinking, in the right order, and with nearly 100% accuracy.  It is a habit set in a specific context. I am home. It is morning. It is a weekday.  I don’t have to think about it all which is fortunate.  Imagine how big our heads would have to be if we had to consciously think about every single thing we do, every time we do it.  If every time we put our keys in the car, we had to remember how to drive or think about how to get to work, our noggins would have to be enormous to hold all those neurons.  Most of what we do is routine and habitual.  If you don’t believe me, think about what you did yesterday.  Try to remember the details of what you did.  I am not talking about the memorable events like a conversation with a friend. I am talking about the thousands of things you filtered out as routine and unimportant as you drove through life.  Just the other day, my daughter drove us somewhere that I would usually drive to.  I could not believe what I had missed on that trip I make hundreds of times. There was literally a huge new building on a corner that I had driven by repeatedly without notice. Missing a building is probably not a huge concern, but I know I miss other things being on autopilot.  I know because I have an 18-year-old conscience living with me. When I ask her a question that she already answered when I was not fully present, she lets me know, “I literally told you this like 3 minutes ago.”  Cue cringe and apology.

The truth is that not all habits are bad. They save us time. Driving to work would take forever if I had to think about every little action it takes to get there. Red light means stop.  I should stop. How do I do that again?  Foot on the brake and clutch. Is it the right foot brake or left foot to brake? Habits save us from needing that enormous head of neurons I mentioned before. Habits leave room for things we think are more important.  If I don’t have to think about rotating my leg on the bike, I can mentally compose my blog for example.  However, not being fully present, and therefore missing my life as it is actually happening right now, is a drawback to practicing habits.  In addition, many habits are actually unhealthy, harmful, or simply unwanted, as Hugh Byrne points out in The Here-and-Now Habit.  Though even the negative habits develop out of a positive intention, they are nonetheless harmful.  Smoking, for example, is often used as an attempt to combat anxiety and overeating is often used to provide a sense of comfort.  Some people use alcohol and drugs to numb themselves to emotional or psychological pain.  Gambling gives some people a thrilling rush of adrenalin.  Unfortunately, those habits must be continually fed and, worse, they are often followed by painful consequences.  These are the extremes, of course, and the hardest to change.

But everyone has some habit that is interfering with living life to its fullest.  Maybe social media has become a distraction that keeps you from being fully present with family and friends or prevents you from accomplishing other goals.  Maybe you want to be more active, but you just cannot stop watching Criminal Minds (not judging just noticing here).  Maybe you want to make healthy food choices.  That has been a goal of mine.  I have a sweet tooth of epic proportion. I had been doing very well making good choices until the Christmas holiday came along.  It started with a small piece of apple pie on Christmas Eve with a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream. I thought I could handle it. I mean it was made with apple. That is a fruit after all. And apparently, vanilla is a bean.  Just saying.   But alas, no. That apple pie was my gateway sweet and it led directly to chocolate.  Before I knew it, I was at a Starbucks, wild-eyed and thirsting for a mocha, extra hot with whipped.  It wasn’t pretty.  The rest is just too horrible to mention. Suffice it to say peppermint and ginger were involved.   I am not proud.  It reminded me of this guy I used to work with.  Whenever something intense would happen at work, he would start patting all of his pockets.  Then he would stop talking and I could tell he was having this conversation in his head, “Where did I leave my cigarettes?  Pants? Shirt? Car?  Damn it! I quit smoking. Why did I quit smoking?” He had quit at least 10 years before. Any kind of conflict left him searching for a lighter. I get the inclination. I made a habit of mindlessly eating chocolate and all of its confectionery cousins.  I was pretty annoyed to find myself caught in its seductive web yet again.  As I was reading The Here-and-Now Habit by Hugh Byrne, I realized that sheer willpower and intention are not enough to overcome a habit.  Eating sweets is a habit that I slipped back into without really thinking about it.  Unlike driving my car or getting ready for work in the morning, it is a habit that I want to change and the only way that is going to happen is by bringing awareness and attention to it.  I don’t want to think about which foot to use to brake the Jeep. I need to think about what I am doing when I am wandering past that bowl of truffles.  I can get the same feeling of well being and pleasure from the endorphins I get cycling as I get from the dopamine eating sweets.  When it is all said and done, I feel like cheering after a great workout, not so much after a truffle.  The insidious thing about harmful or unwelcome habits it that they can happen without our conscious intention.  Repeated actions in a similar context is all they need to burrow into our minds and bodies. The amazing thing is that we can develop positive habits that help us to live life to its fullest.  All you need is awareness, attention and intention. In other words, be present.  It is what gets me up at 4:15 every morning.

What habits are holding you back?

More importantly, what habits would make your life better?

 

I chose this photography of my New Year’s Day bike ride with my best friend because it reminds me of how much better cycling is than chocolate especially when you get to do it outdoors with your best friend.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2019

Empathy Gap – Don’t Fall In

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

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

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

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

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Of Grapes and Friendship

Last weekend, my best friend and I recruited a few enthusiastic volunteers (our husbands and one of our dear friends) and we pressed 400 pounds of grape must.  I have been making wine from kits for about 20 years with pretty solid success.  In addition to getting about 30 bottles of delicious vino for my troubles, I have always marveled in the process.  In particular, I find yeast to be one of the most interesting organisms.  The fact that it can turn sugar into alcohol is nothing short of miraculous.  Don’t get me started on what it does to wheat!  One tiny packet of yeast cells, a couple of weeks multiplying exponentially and out comes 30 bottles of wine.  I had always wanted to start with grapes, though. Truth be told, I wanted to grow the grapes, harvest the grapes, crush the grapes….. you get the idea.  We’ve never had the room to do it.  Even though the yeast is doing much of the work, there is a lot of labor and we have never had the time.  Last year, a friend of mine told me about his adventures in home winemaking from the vineyard and I was hooked.  So, I did what I always do- I got a book. Then I asked about a million questions of my expert friend. Then I called up my best friend and said, “I am going to buy a couple hundred pounds of grapes and make wine. You should do it with me. It’ll be fun.”  I always throw that last part in, even if it might not really be fun because, when we are together, we are always having fun.  And she’s the best kind of best friend because she never says “No!” or “Have you lost your mind?” or “What is wrong with you?”. No matter how hair-brained my idea might be, she’s always in.

“We should ride up Mount St Helen’s to celebrate my 50th birthday. It’ll be fun.”

“We should go see Great Big Sea. It’ll be fun.”

“We should stand in the rain all day waiting to watch a 5-minute race. It’ll be fun.”

And even at 0400 on my birthday, standing next to our bikes white-knuckled and shivering, frost hanging from our noses, wishing we had dressed for winter not fall, fixing a flat tire on the side of the road, she would say, “It’s all good.” It was a bear of a ride. I know because it took three hours up and only one hour back down.  But she never complained, and I talked her into a way worse ride eight months later (after her memories started to fade). Let’s just say they advertised a mostly flat 75 miles with a couple of hills and it was a mostly hilly 75 miles with a couple of flats.  I think of us as a cross between Lucy and Ethyl (if Lucy and Ethyl had doctorates) and Thelma and Louise (if Thelma and Louise were not self-destructive and made better choices where men were concerned).

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Like all other things, she was all in on my grape acquisition adventure.  We ordered three hundred pounds of Sangiovese grapes and the real fun began.  We spent hours planning how we were physically going to manage this. By the time we collected all of the equipment we already had and bought some things we needed, we applied what I call the “20-Mile Logic”.  The 20-Mile Logic goes like this:  If we can ride 40 miles, we can ride 60.  If we can ride 60, we can ride 80. So, if we can ride 40, we can ride 80.  And it only gets more absurd from there.  So, a couple weeks before the harvest, we called the vintner and asked for another hundred pounds of Petit Verdot. Because, of course, if we can ferment 300 pounds, we can ferment 400 pounds. With each passing week, I watched the Brix levels come in with an intensity I only remember in the final months of pregnancy. When will the grapes be ready?!

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When the day finally came, my husband volunteered to drive over to the Portteus Vineyard in Zillah to pick them up. We really had no idea what to expect as we made the long trek from the rainy side to the sunny side of the state.  As we rolled through the vineyard, we passed row upon row of vines fat with clusters of grapes.  Each variety was unique- some fatter, some deeper in hue, some hanging on the vine lazing in the sun, some seemingly floating off the branches.  We stopped at the tasting room purely for scientific reasons. It is important to know what your wine is supposed to taste like, after all. Then we headed out a large cement patio covered in crates of grapes.  With a short lesson on filling buckets from the crusher-destemmer, we jumped in the back of the pick up and quickly started laying out the buckets. I was given a 6-inch-wide hose which I surmised was going to be shooting out grape juice shortly as the crate was dropped into the bin.  As I looked at my friend, I was picturing Lucy and Ethyl trying to keep up with the candy conveyor belt. There I was precariously perched on the tailgate, gripping the hose for dear life.  Instinctively I crouched down against the impending force of 400 pounds of grapes like I was preparing to be on the receiving end of a charging foul.  I imagined myself shooting backward from the pressure and the viral replay on America’s Funniest Home Video.   It wasn’t quite that bad in the end, but we were working hard to keep the empty buckets coming forward and the filled buckets lined up in the back.  That was the easy part it turned out.

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My dining room furniture was pushed into a corner to make room for our winery.  Barriers were erected to thwart my curious Boxer.  In the following days and weeks, we perfected testing for the Brix level, pH and tartaric acid. I felt like I was back in CHEM101. After we threw the yeast, the cap of grapes skins that floated to the top of each bucket had to be punched down at least three times a day. The cap seemed to be swelling before our eyes each time. At one point, I put out an SOS when two of the buckets had grown mountainous caps like something out of a horror movie. When the Sangiovese finished days before the Petit Verdot and way before we had a bladder press reserved, I frantically googled and then hysterically called my friend to alert her that we had an emergency- Carbon Dioxide or Argon were needed stat.  After a short and awkward silence which I was sure was going to be ended by “I’m out!”, she said, “My soda stream makes CO2. Why can’t we use that?” She is brilliant. Though we had seen countless ominous videos of first-time pressers covered in raw wine from head to toe, pressing was a breeze. We had a lot of help and it went off like clockwork.  So now we wait for several weeks in this last phase before aging. It will be months before we bottle and more still before we know if all our efforts have yielded the nectar we hope it will.

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This has been a learning process.  Making wine is a lot like life.

  1.  Sometimes the smallest things have the greatest impact: yeast cells, simple kindness, holding a baby, wiping a tear, helping someone up, cheering someone on. It is the little things that multiply exponentially- just like yeast.  If you don’t believe me, try smiling at everyone you see tomorrow.

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2.   Think ahead and read the directions. There are a lot of steps in winemaking and they can come at you so fast.  You don’t want to be standing with a siphon full of wine without a clean carboy.

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3.   Improvise- sometimes reading ahead just isn’t enough. Who would have thought we could use a soda stream and a fish tank tube in winemaking?

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4.  Have faith. Just because you cannot see something happening doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

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5.   Patience. Sometimes the greatest rewards take the longest time.

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6.   Most importantly, everything is always better when you have a best friend you can count on who gets you.

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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Adventure Days!

For the last couple of weekends, I have been shooting my daughter’s senior portraits.  It was so special to me that I was able to do this for her- that she wanted me to do this for her. Though I have shot a number of senior portraits and I always feel honored to do it, this one had a weight to it. I was at once thrilled and saddened at the mere thought of it.  All summer, it was on my mind. I searched through hundred of images for interesting poses. I looked at images of every park in the greater Puget Sound and into the Cascades. My husband and I even braved 14 miles of washboard and loose gravel on the Mountain Loop Highway from Granite Falls to Darrington looking for the perfect spot.   Washington was very dry last summer though.  Dismal browns covered the normally lush, emerald greens.  So, we waited until fall when the leaves began to turn to scarlet, orange and gold. Unfortunately, September was quite rainy, and we had trouble finding a dry weekend.

When the sun broke through one Saturday morning, we quickly loaded the Jeep with four changes of clothing and my camera gear and headed into the mountains. As we drove along, my daughter commandeered the stereo and the conversation. It was bliss to listen to them both.  As the miles rolled by and the cell towers disappeared, we really had the chance to talk.  I love long road trips with her. I am tickled by her quick wit, strength  and passion.  Without the distraction of social media, we have space for all the things there is never enough space for.  Finding space, I thought, was so much easier before cell phones, AP classes, Friday night football, work, sports, friends and cars. It made me think of that long stretch between diaper bags and dating boys when we just hung out together any chance we got.

When she was very young, I pronounced that, whenever she had a day off from school, we would have an Adventure Day.  I would take a vacation day and off we would go.  Sometimes we would throw around ideas for weeks ahead of time. Other times, we threw caution to the wind and waited until Adventure Day arrived.  Either way, no decisions were made until we were seated at O’Donnell’s awaiting their amazing French Toast.  Then the true negotiations began. We would throw out ideas.  Should we paint ceramics?  Drive to a city we had never visited?  Swim in the salt water at Colman Pool?  Ride a ferry? Sit on the beach?  Explore the Market? Ride bikes? The possibilities were endless. She would always say, “Let’s compromise and go with my plan.”  I would remind her what compromise means and then we would go with her plan.  After all, the truth is I just wanted a carefree day of singing to the stereo, talking about every little thing going on in her life, and listening to her laughter.  My personal favorite was Adventure Day in Bellingham.  We spent the night in town and the day exploring Fairhaven. It was a weekend that alternated between giggling girl and growing up.  On a side street, we found an antique shop that had a display of old hat with veils and feathers my grandmother might have worn as fashion. We cracked up as we tried them on, posing in the most ridiculous way and exclaiming “Daaahling, you look fa-bu-lous!”  A block away we found our kryptonite: a bookstore.  She begged me to buy a history of Africa that weighed more than her head and was sure to fill it.  She was enamored with Africa having listened to the childhood stories of my best friend’s father.  And then I was dragged into a fireplace shop whose resident dog was a Golden Retriever- apparently with a gift for getting people to stop and scratch his ears. She is powerless to pass any pup by.  And on it went, and, as usual, I was filled with wonder and awe at this growing sprite.

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Adventure Day 2014

As we drove up the Mountain Loop Highway, and the sunny skies turned to mist, then drizzle, then rain, I was not disappointed even though I knew we were not going to get the shot that day.  For I had hours that day in the car with her, scouting spots and marking them for the next sunny day.  And we talked about every little thing. And we sang to her playlist.  And we laughed.  Though not an official Adventure Day, it felt like one. (Thanks to the rain, I knew I was going to get another one.) Though unplanned and meandering, that day was precious because I knew these opportunities were dwindling fast.  Sure, we will carve out time even when she was in college, but it is time for her life to grow outward. It is time for her to have some Adventure Days without me.

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Adventure Day 2018
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Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

A Girl’s Best Friend

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

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

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

“Are they mine?!” she asked.

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

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

“No,” I said, “You get to name it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Buddy and His Girl

 

 

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Buddy in His Prime

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Memories Under the Big Sky

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Two Sides of the Same Girl

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

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

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

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

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Just Me

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Stronger Than I Thought

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Wedded Bliss (and the not so blissful parts that make it truly a blessing….)

Next week, my husband and I will be celebrating 29 years of marriage. As our anniversary rolls around, I find myself thinking back to the year of our wedding.  He proposed to me the weekend I graduated from college.  We were supposed to be apart for the next school year as I moved to Seattle to get my teaching certification.  Fortunately for me with a simple twist of fate, he ended up in Seattle working as well.  So, we have never really been apart for the last 34 years.

Our wedding story is one of my favorite memories. We were married at Our Lady of Sorrow.  That should have given us a clue as to how the year would unfold.  I was going to Seattle U at the time and working graveyard admitting in an emergency room.  Going to school, working and planning a wedding was stressful.  Fortunately, my sisters and stepmom were there to help.  I remember one day I was particularly overwhelmed. My younger sister took me aside and wisely said, “This day is going to happen one time. It is going to come and then it is going be gone.  It’s not going to be perfect. But it is going to be ruined if you worry constantly and forget to enjoy the moment.”  It was great advice and I took it to heart.  The first challenge was dealing with the Church’s mandatory counseling requirement.  We had a difficult time scheduling it with school and work.  Luckily my priest took mercy on us and agreed to meet with us privately.  The first time we showed up at the rectory, we were met by my priest who introduced himself to my husband and then said, “So, you are one of those P religions right? Protestant. Presbyterian.” I am grateful he didn’t add “Pagan”. It just got better from there.  We sat uncomfortably at a small table in the sitting room.  Absentmindedly, the priest looked at his notes and looked up at us and then back down. His words seemed to be stuck in his mouth somewhere. He would start to speak and then swallow the words half-formed. His eyes moved up and to the right like he was testing each phrase out. Finally, he announced, “I’m not really sure why they have me do this.  I’m celibate, you know.  What do I know about marriage?”  We were at a loss for words.  I was mortified when the laughed I was choking back escaped in a rush.  In an odd way, it relaxed us all. He truly did not know what marriage was like. But my husband and I had been together for 5 years.  We had weathered the daily challenges of sharing your life with another person. Some were the mundane things that moved through your life like a tide rolling in and out, heavy and on schedule, like cooking or grocery shopping. Some things were punctuated and jarring like accidents or the illness of parents.  We had spent many nights in the wilderness, alone together. There wasn’t much we hadn’t talked about by then. So I quickly realized this test was not for us.  We had, after all, passed it already. We knew what we were getting into.  We were in love and not in the theoretical sense.  It did not take long for the priest to realize that as well. And so, we slipped into this brief period of meeting where he got to know us as we were.

With all the preparations for the wedding complete, the day finally arrived.  We were getting ready at my father’s home where he had a nursery. The Japanese Maples he grew were a beautiful backdrop for family pictures.  It was a very hot day in July. After much begging, my oldest sister consented to take us all up to get cold drinks.  We got in the car where I immediately attempted to roll down the window.  That is when I got my second-best piece of advice.  I was mid-crank, when my sister told me to roll it back up. I whined, “It is so hot!”  Without missing a beat, she replied, “It hurts to be beautiful. Roll up the window.”  She wasn’t wrong.  It did hurt, but I felt like a princess.  After a tortuous hour of photographs, which our black cat repeatedly photobombed, we were off to the church. I was so glad to be sequestered in the cool basement with my dad.  We sat there in comfortable silence for several minutes.  Suddenly my dad sat bolt upright in his chair and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  He ran out of the basement before I could utter even one word. When the time came, I opened the box holding my bouquet. Taking it in hand, I walked tentatively up the stairs unsure if I my dad would be waiting for me.  As I turned the corner, I was relieved to find him standing there.  He took one look at me and said, “What is that?” It was at that moment that I discovered that the smell of gardenias made my father physically ill. This would have been good information about 6 months earlier. But there we stood, so I did what he taught me to do and told him to “Buck up because I am getting married.”  And I did. Twenty-nine years later, I can still feel the smile on my face, the tears in my eyes and the swell of my heart that I had as I looked into my husband’s eyes and said, “I do”.

Despite the oppressive heat, mischievous black cat, gardenia aversion, quirky priest and ominous ‘Our Lady of Sorrow’, that day was perfect to me. When I think back on the last 34 years, there have been far more perfect days than not.  Thirty-four years. It is hard to believe so much time has passed – so much shared history lived. We’ve shared 68 birthdays between us. We have held each other as grandparents, parents, and friends have passed.  We celebrated milestones and weathered disappointments hand in hand. We have picked up the slack and given each other grace.  We held hands when our child was born. We have argued and made up.  We have laughed until we cried. We have done all the mundane yet stressful work of living and raising a family.  Coming through the not-so-perfect days together is bliss itself.  Marriage isn’t always easy. In my experience, it’s not endless days of wine and roses.  It is knowing someone knows you better than anyone else and loves you for everything you are – everything.  It is knowing that person has your back – always. It is knowing that love shared, in the end, will always dwarf the stress, fear, grief, and pain inevitable in this life.  It is knowing that you are linked together and part of a greater chain connecting you to your greater family, your children and your community of friends.  All of that is wedded bliss, truly.

wedding

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 Magic of Motherhood – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

A Warm Welcome and A Wiggling Butt

If you visit our house, you will get a warm welcome from the four-legged creatures and, of course, the two-legged ones.  Buttercup, our two-year-old Boxer (or The Toddler as we affectionately call her), monitors the door vigilantly.  One must be prepared, after all, as friends can appear without notice.  As soon as she hears someone approach, she trots to the door and waits to determine who has come to call (“on her” is implied- I mean why else would someone come to the door?)  This seems very important to her.  Unless you are her friend Lucas who she mauls with love on arrival, she looks everyone over very intently and then heads for the living room to pick out just the right toy for the person and occasion.  As a Boxer, her tail is docked so she has to put in extra effort to let you know that you are getting the wag.  It’s not unusual for her head and behind to connect in her frenzied wagging.  Her body takes on the shape of a comma making it difficult to travel in a straight line so she generally meanders sideways sometimes bumping into walls, sometimes going full circle.  Though we have tried to train her well, if she really likes you or you show any inclination for permissive parenting, she will jump on you and give you a big kiss.

Her warm greeting, with accompanying wiggling butt, are not reserved solely for visitors.  She greets her whole family this way.   Being welcomed home by Buttercup  is a great way to end your day. She doesn’t want to talk about it or “process” anything. She is just so glad you are alive and that you came home – again!  She acts like you’ve been gone forever, and she missed you so much. Buttercup lives in the moment and knows what is important.  Right now, right here, you are with her.  What could be better?  The potential is immense.  You might rub her ears. You might play fetch with her. You might snuggle her.  There might be a treat hidden somewhere on your person. Who cares about the minor disagreement you had this morning over the “missing” sock or refusing to come inside for breakfast?  Who cares if you tried to wedge yourself under the new fence yesterday?   That is in the past. Right now, she has a ball (or lamb or squirrel or beaver or octopus) and she has you.  She knows a hug heals. She knows play and laughter are  good medicine. She knows what is happening right now is what matters right now.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we took a cue from our canine (or feline) family members and greeted each other with a little more enthusiasm?  You don’t have to bring a toy (unless you want to – no judgment) but what if we brought unadulterated joy at seeing each other?  What if we let things go a little more easily? What is we tuned out rehashing the past and worrying about the future long enough to enjoy each other’s company?  I think it’s time we figured out the human equivalent of wagging our tails and let people know, unequivocally, that we are so glad they are here.

Here’s what I came home to today. Aren’t I lucky?
(The blog picture is Buttercup breaking into a photoshoot with my daughter. She hates to be left out.)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Don’t Mistake a Flower for a Weed

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

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

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

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

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth About Lying

My dad had a second story apartment in the Casa Del Rey overlooking Broadway.  I would visit him on the weekends and we would walk up the street to the corner QFC to buy food for dinner.  He was on the road every week it seemed, so he didn’t keep much on hand.  It was so different from our suburban neighborhood in north Seattle.  People filled the streets on Saturday night, spilling off the sidewalk and crossing in between the slow-moving cars.  No one seemed to mind the chaos.  The colors and sounds and smells billowed thick from the bars and restaurants.  Men with gravity-defying hair wore headbands of soft leather ornately beaded.  Bright silks and faded denim flashed through the crowd. Bell-bottomed women glided footless across the cement.  No linen shifts, pumps or bouffant hair constrained their movements.  Loud conversations and acoustic guitars grabbed my attention.  My head swung right and left though I held tight to his hand and march quickly forward two steps to every one of his.  When we got back to the apartment, I would lie in the bay window, chin in my palms watching the strange world go by.  He would cook dinner and ask about my school.  His favorite was a broiled steak with fresh steamed spinach leaves.  He dripped lemon juice on the spinach and topped it off with butter.  He would always have warm, sourdough rolls.  After dinner, we would talk.  He had a weakness for ice cream, so we would often venture out for a scoop in a waffle cone.

Being at my dad’s house was so different than my mom’s.  My mom’s house was a house of women and girls.  There was really no trace of masculinity left in the place.  Even when my grandfather visited, he seemed a bit out of place, an interloper among the panty hose and Dippity Doo.  I was particularly interested in my dad’s bathroom which was where he dropped his shaving kit when he got home from a trip. I don’t remember him ever really unpacking the contents. It just sat there perched on the side of the sink- dark scuffed leather, unzipped and gaping open.  I could see his toothbrush and toothpaste, his dental floss and razor, and, best of all, his shaving cream.  Girls did not have shaving cream back then.  It was a mystery.  I had seen my dad shave before, his face covered in the thick, white waves.  He would crane his neck as he drug the razor upward toward his chin.   I wondered if it was like whipped cream or meringue somehow, as those were the only things I had to compare it to.  The can was tipped on its side and the cap long lost.  A tiny bit of gel seeped from the nozzle.  I could see it was green.  I shut the bathroom door knowing he would never walk in on me and I took out the can. It was metal with words in shiny black and green.  I touched the top of the nozzle and jumped as it erupted into my little hand. It was so pretty- white with ribbons of green and blue.  It expanded there in my hands.  I was worried at first that it might not stop but it did.  I could not resist doing it again.  I wanted to put some on my cheek to see what it would feel like, but I thought that might only be for boys.    I certainly did not want to become one of those.  But it was strangely satisfying to push the top and spray it on the edges of the sink. I ran my fingers through it making curvy lines and coaxed it into waves.  I pushed again, and nothing happened. I knew right then that I was in big trouble.  I started to run water in the sink, but the foam got bigger.  I put some in my hands and dropped it in the trash.  It took some doing and not a small amount of prayers before I got the mess cleaned up (I figured God would not want me to get in trouble when He created everything which included this very tempting shaving cream).

My dad, I should mention, was not gullible. He used to tell me he had been around the block.  I didn’t know what that meant exactly but I thought it must be like school because he knew a lot.  After my protracted trip to the bathroom, I put on my most innocent look and held my breath.  He coincidentally needed to use the bathroom right after me at which time he discovered that all of his shaving cream had disappeared.  I knew I was caught.  He sat me on the couch and asked me what happened to his shaving cream.  I quickly told him that I did not know.  He looked me in the eye and in a quiet voice said, “Cathy, there is going to come a day, not too many years from now, when you are going to want me to trust you. You are going to want me to trust you to drive a car or go on a date or go off with your friends alone to the movies.  I have to be able to trust you. That trust is built in times like this.”  My lip was quivering by then. Tears stung my eyes.  I knew I had disappointed him.  I knew I had lied.  And I sure didn’t want to go on a date, but I had been in a car and knew I wanted one of those.  My dad sounded so serious.  “You and I are the only ones in this apartment. Tell me the truth,” he said.  And I confessed, sobbing.  He held me tight and told me everything was going to be all right.  He told me that lying to people and to yourself could get to be a habit. It is hard for people who lie to keep all those lies straight.  He wanted me to become someone with integrity (which he made me look up in the biggest dictionary I had ever seen.)  The last thing he said was to always remember, “The truth will set you free.”  He was right.  It was a small sin using up all of his shaving cream and lying about it.  It probably wouldn’t have propelled me into a life of crime.  But it was the most stressful 15 minutes of my short life to that point.  It was a painful lesson at the time but no doubt he saved from far more painful ones.  It wasn’t the last mistake I made by a long shot. But he was right then. And he would be right now.  The truth really will set you free.

I picked this photograph for this post because it really feels like freedom to me.

Skagit River with boulders and trees
The Skagit Wild
(1/160 sec., f/5.6, 55 mm, 200 ISO)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Never Pass Up A Birthday Party

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

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

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

DSC_8306.jpg
Sweet Pea
(1/60 sec., f/4.5, 100 ISO, 100 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers, speak.  If you ever have the chance, don’t miss it. He is an extraordinary individual who really embodies the power and resilience of the human spirit. At the end of his speech, he said something that was both so profound and so obvious that I couldn’t decide if I should shout “Amen” or slap myself on my forehead.  I know that I will not say this as eloquently as he did, so I am paraphrasing here. He said that, in reaction to his story, people would often say, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink’. Then one day, someone pointed out, ‘That maybe true, but you can make him thirsty. All you have to do is give him a little salt.’  Manny Scott was honoring the teacher who changed his life by making him thirst for learning. What a powerful thing it is to ignite a passion in someone that makes them thirst to learn.  The best teachers and coaches know just how to do this.  For that matter, the best parents and bosses do as well.  I think it takes just one person in your life to change your whole trajectory. One person who sees all that you can be. One person who sees your gifts not your challenges.  One person who knows you have it in you to do the hard work – someone who can see a future you cannot yet even imagine. I have had more than my fair share of these people pass through my life. But it all started 45 years ago when I entered second grade and found out I was smart.

I attended a small Catholic school north of Seattle.  Though you might imagine nuns with severe hairstyles, stern looks and inflexible rules, I was taught by nuns who hugged and played guitar. (One even wore Go-Go boots occasionally.)  I liked school. It was predictable.  Not much of the rest of my life at the time was. My parents had divorced loudly.  My mom was struggling to manage entering the workforce and raise four little girls. In the wisdom of Family Court circa 1970, I only saw my dad every other weekend.   But I trusted my teachers, so I did not question them when I was moved to a special classroom.  They explained, in gentle tones, that I was having trouble reading and needed extra help. Apparently, that was early code for Special Education.  I took their tests, packed up my school supplies and moved across the hall. I’m not really sure how my dad found out about this unfortunate turn of events. But he did. When he called to tell me that he was taking me out for lunch alone, I knew something serious was about to happen. He always took me out to lunch when he had something serious to say.  I remember sitting across from him in the booth, my legs sticking to the Naugahyde, hoping that the waitress would take her time getting to us.  Nothing serious could be said before we ordered.  Once the drinks were served, my dad launched in.  He was a big man with a big personality who seemed to take over the room.  He was very animated and, at first, I thought he was mad at me. Then I realized he was mad at the nuns which was utterly shocking. Surely, it was some kind of a sin to be angry at a nun.  Surely, they could not have done something wrong.  Then I realized what was going on. He was angry that they had put me in a special classroom. He told me that he had insisted that they do an IQ test (whatever that was) which apparently showed that I was smart.  I almost couldn’t understand what he was saying. After all, I wasn’t a very good reader.  But here he was telling me that I was smart. That I could read. That I would read well and someday I would go to college.  He told me that the nuns had made a mistake which was going to be rectified.  I couldn’t wait to find out what rectified meant.  I just hoped it didn’t mean that the nuns would be mad at me. He was so sure. And he made me believe in that instance that I was just as smart as everyone else, maybe even smarter.  He told me I had to work hard just like everyone else and, if I did, then I could do anything.  The next day, I packed my school supplies and walked across the hall. I never looked back. I could not wait to read something, anything, everything.

I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if he had not been in my corner. I did need extra help in school.  But I needed a lot less once I believed that I could learn. I was willing to work a lot harder once I knew that there was no ceiling to my potential.  It changed everything for me. I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology and went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate.  He led me to the water and made me thirsty to learn.  We all have the ability to do this. There are people in our lives who need a leg up. They need to see their possibilities through our eyes.  Give them a little salt. Trust me. They’ll drink.

I chose this photograph because, as I was photographing an elk herd, this young elk split off from the herd to chase down a couple of elk who were heading toward the highway. Literally, he led them back to the water.

Hey Come Back!

Hey, Come Back!
(1/50 sec., f/6.3, 3200 ISO, 600 mm)

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Grandpa’s House

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

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

29a Jimmy Paris 1957

My Grandpa Jimmy Paris (Dimitri Heramanos Paraskevoulakos)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

My Heart

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

DSC_5623-1.jpg
My Heart
(1/30 sec., f/4.2, 560 ISO, 55 mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

The Truth Will Set You Free

I was two months into my first year in a new school when I found myself hunched over a lunch table in the staff room praying for an earthquake. Not a big earthquake. Loss of life and limb was not necessary. I didn’t even want property damage. I just wanted everyone to get stuck in first period under their desks waiting for the ‘all clear’ until it was time for third period. So, there I was: palms cradling my forehead, deep groan of dread building in my throat, listening to the clock tap out the minutes to my doom. I dreaded second period. They were mean. They were never prepared. They never ooh’d or aah‘d when I lit something on fire or made things bubble over a beaker. On lab day, they acted like they were being forced to act out a Shakespearian drama through interpretive dance. And they were mean. I had never had a class like this. I loved science and every day I wanted students to love science. My classroom management skills were good for a relatively new teacher. I only had one awful day student teaching and I blame that on my ill-chosen outfit: pastel checked sweater and cream skirt. (That color combination is responsible for prison riots. You cannot blame teenagers for losing it.) So pretty much every day for two months, I sat in the teacher’s lounge and prayed for temporary illness, fire drills, mild earthquakes and locust. They never came. At 8:20 every morning, I trudged to my classroom chanting in my head “You are the teacher. They are teenagers. You can do this.” But on this particular Monday, I could take no more. I realized I needed help. The other teachers tried to help. They gave me advice. They told me their “second period” horror stories. I am pretty sure the Shop teacher even had a few covert come-to-the-mountain talks on my behalf. All to no avail. I knew I had to figure it out. I also knew that just beyond the staff room, a mere 20 feet away, sat the very man I needed to talk to. I swallowed my pride and prayed it would sit firmly on top of my breakfast. Just the idea of talking to the principal made me nauseous. I was only in the principal’s office one time as a student. As I sat across from him, that moment flashed back in my head. Believe me, the principal’s office is just as scary at 26 as it is at 16. The principal was a lanky man with straight, jet black hair that looked perpetually two weeks overdue for a cut. He reminded me of a cowboy in an old western. Everywhere he went, he seemed to mosey along like he had all the time in the world. I sat across from him and explained my problem. I asked if he would come to my class and observe. I told him that I had tried everything, and I just needed him to tell me what was going wrong in this class. It was a risk, as a new teacher, to even ask. (Less risky than the earthquake I was praying for, I guess.) But I really didn’t think I could take another day.

He came to my class the next day probably sensing I had one foot out the door and, since I was coaching three sports, fearing he would have to replace me in the middle of the year. He came in after the bell. I was worried that my students would all be on their best behavior with him there. It turned out that I had nothing to fear. They gave him quite a show. He took it all in. At the end of the class, he asked to see me after school. Now, that got ooh’s and aah’s. The rest of the day dragged on as I faced the possibility that asking for his help might just have ended my career. When the final bell rang, I headed for the office where he was waiting. His office felt a lot smaller than it had the day before. I scooted my chair closer to the door as I sat down anticipating the need for a rapid escape. I opened with, “So that is pretty much how they are every day.” With fingers tented, he tapped his chin, took a breath and said, “I can see why you are concerned.” I charged into the breach and asked, “So could you tell what the problem was?” He pronounced, “yes.” I had just a millisecond of hope before he continued. “It’s you.” All of the air went out of my lungs and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. I know for a fact I was staring at him in utter shock and disbelief when I squeaked out “me?”
He didn’t make me wait, which was good because I was already rewriting my resume and considering becoming an ornithologist (birds being clearly nicer than teenagers). He said, “Catherine, you do not teach that class like you teach your other classes. It is obvious to me and it is obvious to them. You walk in and expect them to misbehave. You don’t plan interesting activities because you don’t trust them to act appropriately. The problem is you. If you taught these students like you teach the rest of the day, they would act like all of the rest of your students.” As any smart, new teacher would do, I thanked him for his sage advice and taking the time to help me. Then I stormed out to my Jeep and used the 52-mile drive home to question everything from his parentage to his education degree. At about mile 30, I remembered that I had asked him into my classroom to assess the situation and give me his advice. Pretty stupid move if I wasn’t going to take that advice. So, I did 22 miles of soul searching and realized he was right. The situation was completely in my control. They were teenagers. I was the adult. My job was to teach them even if they were expertly applying the principles of aversive therapy on me. The fact is, even a porcupine has a soft belly. I needed to turn the tables on them- expect them to want to learn and participate in class. And deal with it like an adult when they did not. I had to teach as if they were already my favorite class. It was a lot of work. Harder than any other class I taught that year. It took months to turn it around. In the end, they were my favorite class that year.

I cannot say that I was grateful to have such a direct and honest principal at the time. But I am grateful for having learned the lesson. The cold, hard truth is tough to take sometimes. But as my dad used to tell me (often), the truth will set you free. It saved me in this case. Our perceptions drive our actions and influence all of our relationships. Perceptions are a reflection how we see ourselves in others. They grow out of our experiences and feelings and, because of that, they are flexible. Perceptions are less like granite and more like clouds. The fact is we can change how we see things. When we change how we see something, there is something in us that changes as well. I had to take responsibility for my behavior. I had to ask myself, “would they be different, if I thought they were?” In the end, it made it possible to see them as they really always were- just a bunch of normal teenagers trying to figure out life.

I chose the photograph below because it was another lesson in changing my perception. I came across this grave marker in the Annagh burial ground in Ireland. I dismissed it quickly as not worth a photograph. I was taking pictures of all of the graves in search of ancestors. In the burial ground, other graves were marked with large ornate crosses adorned with Celtic knots. As I was walking through, a local man stopped and told me that it was a Famine grave -probably an infant child not yet baptized who could not be buried in the cemetery proper. It changed my whole perception of how worthy of a photograph this weathered stone was.

DSC_0397-1Famine Grave
(1/200 sec., f/7.1, 100 ISO, 55mm)

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

Making Things Right

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

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

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

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

 

Copyright Catherine Matthews 2018.

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.

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!

DSC_7408logo

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.

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.

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.

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.