2017 : Live Loved, Be Brave

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us. -Hal Borland

virginia-beach-family-photographerIn the last seven years that I’ve maintained a blog, I’ve searched and questioned. I’ve tried my hand at different kinds of writing, different voices, different ways to communicate. I’ve gone absent. I’ve returned. I’ve been unsure. I’ve found a wobbly confidence. I’ve been focused almost solely on writing as a business pursuit.

It mimics quite a bit of the reality of my life and my usually overflowing and anxious brain, and sometimes it’s frustrating to see so much back and forth, so much sway between focal points and commitments. Hyperfocusing is my pattern, and it’s taken reaching some fairly low moments in the last six months to see how damaging that can be. To live incredibly out of balance with who you are and what your needs are for over two years finally brings you to a point of feeling completely suffocated and paralyzed.

Alarmingly, I was feeling many of the same emotions and reacting in many of the same ways as I did immediately before and after my divorce (even down to weight gain and a dramatic haircut). The impetus and situations are totally different, but my reactions to feeling lost and suffocated were not.

It was incredibly confusing to see my life and know it was good, to love so much of it, to be so grateful for how amazing it was, and to know that I had no obvious reason to feel so frustrated and listless.

Despite having figured out so much through the summer and actually being brave enough to write about it here, I wasn’t ready to fully understand what I needed to do to gain a better balance. I was hashtagging #liveinthelayers but not really grasping what it meant for me to actually do that. I was not understanding that I really needed to make choices that brought those layers I so desperately needed back to my life. Instead I continued to hide, to feel more fearful than ever.

In my relentless pursuit of building a successful photography business, I all but abandoned any real physical goals. Running, swimming, and biking dwindled even with half-hearted attempts of signing up for races and then finding injury around the corner. I felt paralyzed from writing and expressing my heart the way I had been doing for years on my blog and on social media because it didn’t feel like it lined up with branding goals, a curated and polished feed, and what is taught as the methods used by successful creatives to build a brand and business.

It’s incredibly important for me to note that none of this is wrong empirically. It simply didn’t work for me, for my heart, and my goals for my life and business. But I mostly kept up. I forced myself to play by the rules.

Until it became too painful and too exhausting. I considered giving up my business. I checked out of social media for a while. I stayed quiet because that is the only way for me to regain understanding. Thankfully, this pattern was ready to be broken, and despite having gained 25 pounds in two years, having a growing out haircut I don’t totally love right now, and having flailed a bit business-wise in the last six months, it is no longer 2006, post-divorce. I am not the unhappy girl who sat on the sidelines at the Shamrock wishing for the confidence to do something real, to feel real and alive. I have done real and hard and meaningful things in the last ten years. Running away is simply no longer an option in my life.

It feels perfectly timed that so many realizations came at the end of 2016. December brought such light and courage and well-timed conversations, and I am entering 2017 with a lightness and confidence that has eluded me for a long time. And while it is a leap for me to share so honestly here because I’m out of practice, I believe it’s important. It’s important for me to acknowledge my journey. It’s important for others who may also be struggling for any reason to recognize themselves in these words.

I am ready to fully dive into the layers.

I’m carefully reconstructing a business that truly reflects who I am. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like yet, and I’m comfortable with that mystery for now. I do know that it will continue to focus on loving my families and newborns well.

I’m taking charge of my fitness. I found a new gym that is personal and ego-free. I’m running again without the pressure to tackle huge distances. I’m eating healthily. I’m feeling better about myself.

I’m reflecting and writing and reading and journaling again. I realized, sadly, that I haven’t dedicated a year to a theme or a word in two years.

I’m not considering 2017 a new beginning, but a going on, a continuance of this life’s story that is threaded with more wisdom and experience and intention.

I’m chasing down me again (and again); I’m remembering to live loved and be brave.

Catch and Release

The mornings unfurl before me now, expansive, open ended. Suddenly there’s time to sit on the screened porch, the cicadas humming, their white noise infiltrating the silence, the rain playing its staccato beat, and write. Think. Be. Suddenly there’s endless time to swim and train, to run errands, unencumbered. To meander around bookstores, the colorful spines of the books lining the shelves, a running rainbow of words and stories.

It’s unsettling, this free time, and I’m unsure how to navigate because in the midst of exhaling, of realizing this gift of quiet and time to myself after years of very little, is the immutable reality that my role as a mother is always changing. We spend years knitting together our own version of motherhood. We question; we cry; we laugh. We sigh exasperatedly and feel that we will never quite get it right. And all the while, as we furiously create new layers, new textures, and designs, we realize that the other end is slowly and methodically unraveling.

Motherhood, it seems, is a catch and release, a ceaseless practice of gathering close and of letting go. And the unraveling around here lately has reached a furious pitch; we are on the cusp of change, just dipping our toes into the liminal spaces between the shadows of childhood and the hazy beginnings of becoming.

The sun hadn’t yet begun its wide arc across the sky as I stumbled out of bed and downstairs to find Pacey already dressed, packed, and ready to catch the bus on his first day of high school. Over the rim of my coffee cup, through the steam, I examined him, memorized the few remaining round, boyish features that lingered along the lines of his face. We’ve grown together; we’ve argued and said many harsh words; we’ve snuggled and watched movies and read books; and now that he’s tipped the scale towards more man than boy, now that he’s starkly taller than I am, I see that I’m releasing more than I’m catching. Our orbit grew ever so wider as he walked to the corner, backpack-less despite my futile protests, brown paper lunch bag in hand, his plain black lunchbag quickly becoming another unwanted relic of middle school. I couldn’t help but see the boy he was, the knock-kneed, striped polo shirt, backpack so large that it almost swallowed him figure that I sent to kindergarten in a release that was no less large, no less wrenching than this.

I know our time together, this day to day getting on with school and soccer and home and endless summers has already reached its pinnacle. We are on the downward slope, quickening with each day towards even more difficult releases, and I frantically want to grasp at every scant piece of his boyhood that remains on the edges. And while I know that the teen years are a time of reckoning, a time of push back and brassy behavior, I can’t help but want to soften my response to the increasing chaos and embrace the crazy, emotional, and sometimes obnoxious ways they embrace the world. Because I’m learning that softening, a more emollient and gentler approach with my children and maybe more importantly myself is the answer to the tumultuous way life refines us.

To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. —Pema Chodron

Every part of me wanted to panic and rattle as I struggled with gracefully allowing Rowan to board the bus later that morning. It was now her turn, with her too-big backpack and knobby knees, another image that will be a fallback, a marker, one to draw up when we need comfort. The bus drove away with a loud rumble, and I saw in such sharp relief that our entire reality shifted in that moment. Another orbit dramatically expanded and our slow mornings and drawn out and placid days are now the stuff of memory: another release, more merciless unraveling.

We talk of how babies change our lives, how time to ourselves becomes something of luxury. We move sleepily through molasses infused hours that bind each day indistinctly to the next, and then we finally come to the day we send everyone to school. I’ve been expecting to find more clarity; I expected to be invigorated by the freedom, and it’s surprising to find it feels just as hazy but with less noise. We will find our way, our comfort with this new routine and schedule, but for now, it feels strangely foreign and ill-fitting. It’s scratchy and unfamiliar, and in an attempt to not unravel myself, I’m softening my approach here, too. I’m, begrudgingly at times, giving myself the space to feel completely raw and uncomfortable because I’m learning that this constant knitting and unraveling is life’s way of refining us. The unraveling will relentlessly continue, but on the other end, unfurled and beautiful, ragged and undefined, there are new intricate layers and designs surfacing.

06-13-2016

Pitching Tents

Our campsite sat alone at the edge of a winding array of freshly groomed and perfectly square parcels of temporary residences. Slowly, we pitched our tent, what would become our shelter for the weekend, vulnerable and thin. Carefully choosing a corner of our site that had just enough tree cover and just enough space to hold the rectangular base of our tent, we brought the tent to three dimensions.

This trip, poised perfectly at the cusp of summer and fall, was a reaching, a narrowing of my purpose to provide my children and myself with what I believe we need in this world: nature, the rhythm of a day lived wholly outside, living by the sunrise and the sunset, simple, quiet togetherness. A longtime camper, our recent lives have included no weekend excursions. It simply wasn’t something that we found worked as a whole family, but recently, I’ve longed for the simplicity of the mountains, the way the crisp morning air provides a stark contrast to the day’s waiting warmth and humidity, the pungent campfire smoke, and the ambling way the hours drift by.

Just as my meager and out of practice fire began to finally form in the ring, a summer thunderstorm rolled across the tops of the trees and rain began to fall, slowly at first and with just enough time before the skies completely opened to dash on the rain fly and find solace in the tent. The rain pelted on the tent in a disparate but comforting rhythm, the delicate rivulets decorated the outside walls haphazardly in a veiny and translucent roadmap. Our new tent was being water tested within an hour of its debut, and we laughed at the impeccable timing of a surprise storm when the weather had shown no chance of rain.

Like the tent, I was also being tested within an hour of our arrival. This camping trip was the beginning of a different story I’m choosing to tell myself. Different than what I believed was capable of doing on my own. Different from the story I had been telling myself for years. A story that has had a rigid perimeter and a stringent middle. A story that says the idyllic, the ideal, the normal is the only definition of success and happiness.

It’s so easy to get absorbed in the caricatures of life we see every day, so easy to become enamored with the vision of a curated life, an exacting script to follow, a carefully plotted beginning, middle, and end. What I’m beginning to learn, what I’ve been learning over and over, is that there is no such script, no such predetermined plot line for a perfect life. Our decisions, our actions, and our desires form the plot line as we go, and it becomes perfect in its own design. It leads us to where we are meant to be.

And so I found myself alone with my children in a tent, during a thunderstorm in the mountains, making shadow puppets on the tent’s walls, laughing about the gibberish the lines of rain created, telling scary stories. I felt myself relax into this space just a little, the rain slowly peeling away the murky layers I’ve carried in a futile attempt to control and create a life that fit my exacting mold.

The storm finally waned but the rain drops deposited on the trees’ leaves relentlessly pelted the tent’s roof throughout the night, and it left me feeling raw and vulnerable, cracked open and exposed. My nerves were already on edge from venturing into this space on my own, and in the thick darkness I could hear Gage stir, sniffle, and then turn with a garbled release of sleepy words. In turn my emotions ran rampant and fluctuated between courageous and terrified. We knew no one else in the campground, my cell phone defiantly displayed No Service, there was word that a bear had been nosing around campsites at night in search of food, and within an hour of our arrival my story of how our weekend would go had been changed, wetted, and shifted.

Suddenly I had an intense and almost uncontrollable urge to go home, to frantically disassemble the drenched tent, pack my sleepy children into the car, and crash through the closed park gate, leaving the rain and the bear behind. I questioned my purpose in bringing us here, alone, without another adult to lean on for support. The sense of being utterly alone and unmoored in the world for that moment was inescapable and oppressive. I wondered: was I really interested in bringing us closer to nature and an easier way of living, if just for a few days, or was I trying to prove something?

Without the mind-numbing escape of social media or games on my phone, I found that my only way through this rainy, restless night was to breathe through the panic and to hold my fear gently. The soaked leaves finally dried, and we emerged from our soggy cocoon to face a new day, the fears of the night before fell away as we set to the morning duties of drying off chairs, making coffee, setting up the stove and making breakfast. The frantic questioning of the night before was silenced, quieted in the way that mountain mornings can hush most stress, and I trusted that we were here, in this magical place, amidst strangers and maybe a roaming bear, for exactly the reason we needed to be.

There was nothing left to prove because in the uncomplicated morning air, it was clear that this exodus from our normal lives was simply about us being together in this space that felt magical. It was about creating the plot line for our lives, in all of its messiness and unexpected turns and soggy tents. Rather than living in a desperate attempt to prove myself and create and curate my identity and our lives to others, what was brought into sharp focus was a need to simply be, to exist together in this splendid slice of time, a halcyon way to close the summer out, unfettered and free.

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Rebuilding

Today I held Jon tightly and had my first teary-eyed goodbye at an airport gate. Strangers walked by and smiled gently as I wiped the tears that traced my cheeks, and I had to almost laugh at the subtext of my story because I was only going to be away for 48 hours. Still those tears have been pooling, nudging, wanting to fall for more than just today.

I don’t know if it’s the heavy, heat of summer, the prospects of a short visit to parts of my past life this weekend, or just my nature that has me splashing messily around in my emotions. Maybe it’s part of the journey, maybe it’s the two-to-one intervals of making progress and stepping back: the ebb and flow of growth.

And while it’s incredibly easy to slip into auto-pilot mode and float along on the surface of my life, it’s not how I’m built. The more I avoid the deep, sometimes murky parts of life, the more dark and murky and confused I become. In the last few years, I’ve felt pressure— internal and external— to carefully curate what I present to the world. Because this has become less of a purely personal blog and more of a blog for my business, I’ve held back from writing. From sharing, from thinking, from really being who I am. Because what would people think? What would clients think? What would colleagues think? Shouldn’t I be building my brand first and use my blog for a different purpose than I once have? And while everyone says that branding should be personal, I feel like there’s an asterisk: *but not that personal.

I have my own asterisks.

*I’m tired of branding myself.

*I’m tired of curating myself.

This summer has been full and active and filled with layers that I know I need, but it has also felt dark and heavy, and I think that is a culmination of over two years of layerless living. I threw myself so fully into building a business, into becoming successful, into learning, into fitting in that I gave up on the dimensions of my own story beyond photography. When that happens it’s incredibly easy to slip into old habits of self-criticism, of feeling eternally less than, of never measuring up to self-imposed notions of perfection.

I clipped my own wings.

Is it any wonder that now I feel stuck? I know this place well. It’s a cycle that I’ve perfected since childhood, and for the past two weeks, I’ve hidden. I’ve managed only the bare minimum of social media business tasks. I’ve really wanted to stay under the covers, and a bad cold gave me the excuse to do that some of the time.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
-Brene Brown

My story may not be tidy and exceedingly peppy all of the time. It’s true that sometimes I think “too much” about life, and I will always prefer a deep, whole-hearted conversation over small talk. I could choose to continue running from my story, but instead I’m ready to own it, to share it, to layer it with what fits, and to ruthlessly extract the parts that don’t so that I can authentically and carefully rebuild.blog

 

Live in the Layers

The noise of life always seeps in. It gnaws away at my edges and creates its familiar and distinct anxiety. Year after year, I’ve looked around and wondered when life really begins. When will I have arrived at the life I’ve yearned for. The life that will be wholly fulfilling. One where I’m not restless. Not second guessing. Not wondering what else or why.

It’s an overwhelming process that ranges from an incredibly joyful satisfaction to an increasingly uncomfortable restlessness.

I’m tired of the restlessness.

Hyperfocusing on only one part of my life and then floating along on the rest is exhausting. I’m convinced that a perfectly balanced life doesn’t exist. But I believe there is a recipe to the perfect balance we need at any point in our lives if we are disciplined enough to search it out and live it.

If you want to measure the level of happiness in your life, measure the level of discipline in your life. You will never have more happiness than you have discipline. The two are directly related. […] Whether those experiences are physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, discipline elevates them to their ultimate reality. It heightens every human experience and increases every human ability. –Matthew Kelly

It’s been a challenging awareness to accept that in many ways, I have lacked the discipline to really create the life that will be wholly fulfilling to me: the discipline to consistently commit to all of the layers that I know I need. Oh there has been plenty of discipline surrounding them in very concentrated areas. I’ve completed challenging physical goals. I’ve written for hours and hours. I’ve gone to church. I’ve built a business and grown as a photographer. I’ve devoured books. But all of those have happened in isolation. There has been a stark lack of dimension, so where I’ve very intently focused on one, the rest have faltered.

In photography, composition is crucial. The foreground, background, the edges matter. The negative space is as important as the weighty presence of the subject. Each layer of the image has a responsibility to the whole. In some moments, different layers hold more importance than others, but it is a conscious choice we make each time we press the shutter.

And I’m learning it is a conscious choice in life.

Live in the layers, not on the litter. Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes. –Stanley Kunitz

It’s time to live in the layers. This is my reentry. Because I am not done. Because I’m more than a photographer. And a mother. And a wife. Because I’m a writer. A runner. A triathlete. I’m more than I’ve even begun to discover.

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Sloppy Copy Life

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Last week Pacey had a science project due. One of those multistep, somewhat confusing projects that required a finished product: a drawn and labeled pH scale, free of pencil, full of color, and of course, neat and professional. He had completed the research, printed his labels, but before he began assembling the scale, he told me he was going to do a sloppy copy first and asked for another sheet of paper the same size and shape as the one his teacher provided for him. He sketched and erased, drew and labeled until he had something he was pleased with turning into his final copy.

I watched him work for a while, but then left him to his own creativity, and since, I haven’t been able to shake free of the idea of a sloppy copy. And in all of the reading I’ve been doing, in the wonderful posts I’ve read about honoring your story and your life, I realized:

This is my sloppy copy life.

And it is exactly where I want to be.

Full of smudges and eraser debris, wild graphite tangent lines, and stray marker dots from resting too long in one place on the page. It is endearingly haphazard and markedly methodical. It is soulfully brilliant and deafeningly empty; content and remorseful. It is country and rock and roll; it is blended and family, together and disconnected.

It is bits and pieces, whole and part. It is startling beauty in the harmony, and suddenly with a shallow breath, the incandescent clarity is washed away and reblanketed with hazy bleakness, an oppressive grey fog.

It is carefree fulfillment in the moment, peace with what is, with the simplistic joy of breathing and mothering. Then it is achingly yearning for more, for something else, something greater, but knowing this is the greatest time of all.

It is watching the years recede with a confusing mixture of nostalgia and relief as the white caps of my twenties quietly fizzle into the surf. It is a joyful welcoming of the wisdom of almost midlife but a grasping at the gaping, smoldering hole where naive youth once festered.

It is all of this and none of it. It is less than this and more. It is exactly what I want and nothing like I wanted at all.

This is my sloppy copy life. Full of missteps and triumphs, delight and sorrow, softly penciled curves and crisply inked lines.

It is paradoxical. Discursive.

It is pure and beautiful.

It is sloppy and earnestly making ready for the final, the gradable, presentable finished product.

Slowly and with an intent, but wavering, surety.

Grown

I just completed four nights of an incredibly transformative free-writing class with Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary. This was our one homework assignment. Ten minutes of writing with no editing. Start from a moment: either a current one or a memory. Start with emotion and description without any set theme or focus. And see where it leads. Here is what I found myself understanding from a quiet moment with Rowan yesterday.

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Her head is heavy on my chest. She nursed herself to sleep in that deft way that comes with almost three years of practice. The faint smell of chlorine in her hair creeps into my nose. Dishes clink and clank in the sink downstairs. Outside of this condo countless skiers and snowboarders glide down the mountain. Some carve. Some hesitantly rest back on their heels and inch down bit by bit. Some fall and leave a wake of parted snow.

I should get up and begin gathering belongings strewn through the entryway and dangling from the wooden bench. I should create some order in the rubble of boots and gloves, jackets and helmets.

I should.

But something is holding me here in this moment. Maybe the silence. Maybe the golden hue of vacation.

Maybe.

But maybe it’s the overwhelming sense that I have arrived. I’ve always wondered when I would feel grown up. When it wouldn’t seem that I was playing adult. Suddenly, here I am. In this place with a family that doesn’t always fit the image that used to claim the pedestal in my head but instead is perfectly mine: full of give and take, lessons and challenges, joy and happiness.

It’s taken a while. A little less of a sleek skier’s straight lines and more of a novice boarder’s awkward zig-zag trail.

Maybe more falling than carving.

Maybe.

But what I’ve begun to understand as I’ve started to allow years of perfectionism and ideal images to fall away is we arrive. We arrive at a place of warmth and acceptance for the choices we’ve made– those choices that had us inching down the mountain rather than gliding effortlessly. We arrive at a place where a toddler’s head heavy on our chests is all that we need to feel content in a given moment.

We arrive, finally, at ourselves: rooted in this life. Grown and beautiful and capable.

Complicated and Simple

I’m not sure if it is the disrupted sleep schedule of the holiday weekend or if it is a new phase of development, but lately Rowan has been challenging. She’s been cranky. And bossy. And sassy.

It’s pushing me to my edge. And I’ve been bossy. Cranky. Maybe even sassy.

This afternoon, in a desperate, last ditch effort to not just plunk her on the couch and tune into Disney Junior for two hours until Jon got home, we headed upstairs to the playroom. Instead of sinking into my crankiness and reacting to her craziness, I looked around for something new. Something different. Something that might occupy her suddenly big energy that fills the room and leaves little space for anyone else to function.

I found these in the closet. These colorful, little pieces of tubular plastic. I can’t even remember what they are called, but I do remember my mom giving them to me when the boys were little, and I quickly tucked them away, out of sight. The last thing I needed as a single mom was two wild boys scattering tiny bits of plastic throughout our condo. That was just too complicated.

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The light table illuminated our faces in the dark room, and we went about plucking them up and placing them on the shape patterns. We compared our designs, became absorbed in the process, subconsciously allowed our vibrating energy to internalize a bit and instead set it in loose in quiet creativity.

Maybe it’s my age now: a bit wiser, a bit less reactive than that young, straggled single mom.

Maybe it’s a girl versus boys.

But what was once perceived as such a complicated, overwhelming activity suddenly became very simple, quieting, and centering.

Mirroring life then versus life now, perhaps?

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This post is a little experimenting with free-writing and is linked up at The Extraordinary Ordinary. I’m excited to be taking her online free-writing class this week, too!