Photography

The Beginning of April

TulipIn April the fact of spring becomes obvious. This makes my heart happy. Yet I have a habit of being tangled up inside my own head and failing to notice the world around me. This is particularly true since I don’t have to leave my house to go to work. There was one year where I looked up at the beginning of May and realized that I had completely missed daffodil and tulip season. This year I plan to pay attention. The world is full of small beautiful things that exist whether or not I take time to see them, but my life is enriched when I take time to notice. And some of them do get more beautiful for my attention. The flowers in my gardens grow stronger, bigger, more beautiful when I take time to pull weeds and scatter fertilizer.

02 Forget-me-not
I took some time to do that yesterday. I also planted some summer bulbs that are a gift to myself in June when they bloom. I also uncovered small gifts that I planted for myself some months prior, like this little forget-me-not. I love forget-me-nots. They remind me of playing with a childhood friend. We weren’t allowed to touch his mother’s roses, but we could pick as many of the tiny blue flowers as we wanted. Each plant only lives for about two years. Once the plant expends all its energy into flowers, the plant itself dies, but from among the hundreds of seeds, new plants will sprout, spreading tiny blue loveliness for next year.

03 Apricot blossom
The arrival of April reminds me that I was supposed to prune trees and grape vines in early March. Hopefully I’ll get out there during this next week while my kids are on Spring Break. I may even declare a yard work day and get the kids to help me. The abundance of blossoms on my apricot tree are a testament to the value of pruning. Two years ago the tree was weak and straggly. It had over-produced fruit for two years in a row. I pruned it back vigorously last spring, cutting off all the branches which might have borne fruit. This forced the tree to focus on leaves, which feed the tree, rather than on fruit, which takes energy from the tree and gives it to the possibility of future trees rather than feeding the tree it came from. The tree grew strong again, and this spring it is covered in blossoms, which are beautiful to see. As soon as the blooms fade, I’ll trim the tree again. I’ll not trim off all the fruit, but I’ll thin it out so that the tree can supply some fruit, but still have energy for more leaves. There is probably a lesson for me in self management as I consider managing this tree.

This April, in an effort to nourish myself and to share beauty, I plan to be posting a photo a day over on my twitter feed. They may all be plants and flowers from my garden. Or they may be something else that catches my eye. The only rules I’m attempting to abide by, are post at least one per day, and only post pictures that bring me happiness. You’re welcome to follow along.

Smashed

photo

It was not the outcome that anyone intended, yet somehow we ended up with shards of something that used to be whole. The shards were sharp, able to do more harm if they were not handled carefully. This is the story of many of my days these past couple of years. It is the story of yesterday when a person came to my house to talk to me about behavioral issues with one of my kids. The person departed and I was left with shards, not even sure where I fit in the metaphor. Am I the broken thing? Or am I the one who has to figure out how to clean up? Feels like both.

I went to my room and cried for a while. Then I talked with my child and we both cried for even longer, because harm has been done and needs to be made right. My child is both harmed and the one at fault. I have to spend energy preventing my mind from trying to analyze all of the moments that led up to the one where things were smashed. As if I could alter the outcome by finding decision points that led to alternate timelines. My mind also tells me that I’m blowing it all out of proportion. It is, after all, only a small broken thing. Clean up will be quick and we’ll move onward.

Except that I end up smashed (or cleaning up after smash) so often lately. Those tiny shards scatter themselves and sometimes I find my self bleeding because of shrapnel from something I thought I cleaned up long ago.

This too is part of the holiday. The house is filled with beauty, but also with things that are more prone to breaking. The pressure to make sure the moments are glowing and meaningful, also means that some of the fragile things will crack. I may be one of the fragile things. I am to be my best self, but that is difficult in a season which increases the demands on my limited resources. Even the articles, speeches, and pleas to simplify are commandments with which I must struggle to comply. Thus I find myself contemplating the shards of an ornament on the floor of the front room. Thinking about all the ways in which Christmas breaks people.

And also the ways that it heals people. And how sometimes things must be broken before they can become something else. And how the metaphor begins to fall apart before I’ve found my way through to an epiphany. I would like to have an epiphany. I would like to have a shining moment where I can clearly see that all the smashed days were necessary, part of a grand plan designed to help me and mine grow. I’m certain that some of them were critical. Perhaps yesterday was one of them. I’m also certain that some of them were just the result of human beings clumsily bumping into each other and accidentally doing harm. It would be nice to be able to see which days were which.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe I’m better off treating all the smashed up days as if they were important. Maybe it is only in trying to find meaning in the shards of something broken that the brokenness gains any meaning at all. I do believe there is a plan, and it begins with me fetching a broom. We learn by doing, struggling, smashing, cleaning up, and moving on.

Listening to Silence

photo(4)

I’ll admit that a photo of a buffalo standing in the snow doesn’t immediately make me think of Christmas, but then I didn’t promise that all my photos and stories would be holiday themed.

I suppose I should have spent this final Saturday before Christmas in preparing for that celebration. Certainly every store clerk thinks it should be the focus of my life. “Are you ready for Christmas?” they all ask. I answer “No.” because that is much shorter than launching into a speech about how complicated that question is. I’ve written about being ready for Christmas. It isn’t something that I do. There is never a moment where I sigh and think “Now I’m ready.” I always arrive at the holiday unprepared in one way or another.

Which brings me back to the buffalo. Instead of spending today with lists and shopping in an effort to be prepared, I spent the day visiting. Mostly I visited people, but since I was in the neighborhood, I also drove out to visit the animals and silence on Antelope Island. As I drove across the causeway I thought how nice it would be if I could get a picture of a “Christmas” buffalo in the snow so I could write about it. I didn’t expect that. Usually I only see the buffalo from afar, but this one was standing right by the road.

I also saw several dozen jack rabbits.
photo
They were less obliging about posing for photos.

I stood for a while outside my car and just listened. It is so silent on the island that I can hear the flap of birds’ wings from a hundred yards away. I heard a coyote crying out from over on the mountain. Sometimes a car would drive by, ripping through the silence with machine noise, but the silence came back and filled me. With nothing around me but the sounds of far off animals, my thoughts slow and still. I find calmness inside that I often forget is there when I’m surrounded by my comforts and their attached responsibilities.

photo(3)
Wild places have no expectations of me. They just are. When I’m in one I’m more able to just let myself be as well. I wish that Antelope Island were closer to me than a 90 minute drive. I would sneak away there more often.

photo(5)

Christmas Tree

photo

It is a Christmas tree like many others. Some Christmas trees are gorgeous, a treat for the eyes, and a thing for admiration. Mine is lovely, but in an ordinary way. If you were to line up my tree with a dozen others, it wouldn’t win any prizes, at least not if the judges were objective. But objectivity isn’t the point of Christmas, neither is competition. My tree is special and beautiful because it is mine, because it adds light to our house, because the mish mash of odd ornaments all have stories, because we’re the ones who haul it out to assemble it each year. I love that my tree doesn’t need to be special for me to love it. Or to put it another way, it is special because I love it. Even if no one but my family can see how special it is.

The Gift of a Cat

photo

I’ve written about our cat before: how I found her, how we had to give her back, how she chose to come back to us, and how she became ours permanently. She has been ours since 2010 and she adds a lot to our lives. I thought my allergies would mean I could never have a cat live in the house with me. I’m very grateful that this turned out to be false.

Our cat is getting older now. She’s becoming an old lady kitty. Every day we get to have her is a gift, which is why I took the opportunity to photograph her under the tree among other gifts of this season.

Little Wooden Soldier

photo

This little wooden soldier has been in my life for a long time. My first memory of him was when he was attached to a musical night light lamp in my childhood friend’s room. The soldier had two friends with him on a wooden platform and when the lamp was wound up, they went around carousel style. I think I was three or four. I remember playing with the lamp, winding it up, and eventually breaking the music box portion. These friends lived right across the street from us and they were more like auxiliary family rather than friends. Friend’s mom was an extra mother for me. She loved me, gave me many horse books, encouraged me in creative pursuits, and didn’t even get very angry when her son and I painted splotches on the walls of her house.

At some point my friend out grew his need for a nightlight. His mother, wise woman that she was, took the little soldiers and turned them into Christmas ornaments. It is possible that she did this just prior to them moving away. One of the little soldiers was given to me. He has hung on my tree every year since. When I pull him out of the ornament box I think about my childhood friends. I think about the woman who was so kind to me and who has since died. I’ll never get to hug her again or tell her thank you.

The soldier smiles at me and he keeps marching, reminding me of good things past and that good things are ahead too.

Christmas Cards

photo

I love Christmas cards. They are a tradition that is waning as electronic communication takes over. I remember when my Christmas card wall would be covered with dozens of cards before December was over. These days I’m fortunate if we end up with ten.

Yet I know that Christmas cards are complicated. They seemed simple when I first got married. I just took a mailing list, printed out a cheerful letter, and dropped them all into the mail. I liked doing it. I liked reaching out an connecting with people whom I may have lost contact with during the prior year. I liked that each card carried an invisible message “I’m thinking of you.” Though at that younger age, I may have been less aware that the message was muted by my mass mailing approach.

Then I arrived in 1999. That was the year where I went through radiation therapy to kill a tumor in my neck that was not cancerous, but kept growing back. The radiation sapped my health and sent me into a depression. By fall things were better, but then in early December Howard took himself to the emergency room with chest pain and ended up in the cardiac ICU because he had myocarditis. I still hadn’t sent out my annual Christmas letter, and I couldn’t bear to write one. What would I say? “Merry Christmas from the hospital. Howard will probably be fine eventually, but we’re in crisis right now?” That was the first year I didn’t send a letter at all. I sat in Howard’s hospital room and signed the cards “Love The Taylers” then dropped them into the mail.

2000 was a better year for us, Howard and I both recovered fully and we’d launched Schlock Mercenary. 2004 was when I gave up mass mailing Christmas cards at all. We’d just quit Novell and money was very tight for the next few years. I let Christmas cards fall off my December to do list.

I miss them. I miss getting bright colored seasonally appropriate art in the mail. I loved the year that I got an Eid Al Fatr card. Yet I find that this year I feel about writing a Christmas letter approximately what I felt in 1999. I would have to choose between being appropriately upbeat for the holiday and being truthful about how this past year has felt for me. So I’ve compromised. I just spent an hour writing The Christmas Letter I Will Not Send. It tells of all the medical appointments and mental health issues. It talks about joy and bright spots that are all mixed up with stress and pain. It goes on for three pages with far more personal information than acquaintances are likely to want. Writing it was really good for me to do. It helped me see my year in summary, and I can see that it qualifies as a good year because we are all stronger and better than we were at the beginning. Most of it was not fun, but I’m not sorry for it. Writing the letter helped me see this in ways that I had not before. I suspect that most Christmas letters matter far more to the person who writes them than to anyone who reads them.

With that letter written and stored on my hard drive, I find that I still want to reach out to friends and family. So I will be sending out some Christmas cards. Each one will have a handwritten note. They aren’t trying to catch people up with all the events of my year. They just express love and gratitude to the recipient. I don’t know how many I’ll do, time and energy are in limited supply, but the ones I’ve done so far have made me happy. I’ll do a few more as I find time until I run out of December.

May you find the holiday traditions that bring you joy and let go of the ones that don’t.
–Sandra

The Story of A Wall Sconce

Almost three years ago I devoted a couple of weeks to repainting our front room. It was a project that required shoving all the furniture to one side, draping everything with plastic, painting and then repeating the process for the other side. I then had a lovely empty wall. I spent the next few weeks looking at that wall and planning what we should hang on it to finish making the room a beautiful place. I even went out and purchased a wrought iron wall sconce as part of my plans.

That January was the beginning of 2013, which was the year of massive transition in our family. Mental health issues emerged in not-to-be-ignored ways. I had kids transitioning schools, the oldest was headed for college, and there was a shift to be made in how our business was run. I wanted 2014 to be better, part of it was, most of it wasn’t. 2015 has been a rough ride as well, much of that because all the stress caught up to me and I’ve been trying to regain my balance. In all that time this wall sconce sat on the floor in my office. Sometimes it was tucked into a corner. Other times it got moved out into the middle of things because I was rearranging. It got knocked over. The glass cups went rolling on the floor and had to be recollected. I thought of getting rid of it more than once. My plans for the front room wall had changed anyway. I kept being annoyed by it, but not quite being willing to give it away.

A few weeks ago Howard saw it in my office and mentioned that it would look nice on the front entry wall where we’d recently removed a batik hanging. This was not the wall that I had nicely painted. This was the opposite wall that I’d meant to get around to painting, but never did. It sits there white, dingy, and waiting for me to decide if I really do want to knock open the front of the coat closet to turn it into a nook, or if I just want to paint and call it good. Howard was right, the sconce would fit there. Yesterday I decided I was done waiting. I didn’t have the energy to make big decisions about closets and nooks. I didn’t have time to undertake a big painting project. But I could grab a drill and drive in a few screws.

Two screws. Fifteen minutes. The sconce that has been underfoot in my life for three years is now in a place where it is lovely instead of annoying. Howard took it a step further and lit candles to go with it.

photo (2)

It is beautiful, and in the light of its candles, the wall becomes beautiful too. My mind wants to make a parable of this story, to find a single meaning. Instead I found several. When things are out of place, I can’t see their true value. Sometimes something which spends a long time being a problem can turn out to be wonderful. If I am patient I will get through the hard time and back to where I can make things lovely instead of spending all my energy surviving. Howard sees things I don’t and makes my life brighter.

Or maybe I should stop trying to assign meaning and just be happy watching the candles flicker.

Celebrating in Small Ways

photo
When I was growing up December 13 was an important landmark during the Christmas holidays. It was the day when caroling began. Each year our family would pick a few friends or neighbors who we thought were having a particularly difficult holiday. Sometimes it was because their money was tight, sometimes they’d just experienced a death, sometimes they were facing an upcoming death, sometimes they struggled in other ways, sometimes we just wanted to express gratitude to a person. We picked two or three households then we would go and sing to them each night for twelve nights before Christmas. Each singing featured one of the verses from the song Twelve Days of Christmas only with our own words to match the small gift that we gave to them. I loved that tradition. I loved the singing. I loved the look on their faces when they realized we really were going to show up on their porch every single night. I loved the feeling that we were bringing joy to someone in a difficult season.

For various reasons this tradition did not work well in the family that I helped create when I got married. I tried it one year and discovered I do not have the gift for it that my mother has. (I wrote about it here.) It certainly isn’t something I would be willing to put into our lives now. I simply don’t have the emotional energy necessary to sustain that big production. But I would like to do something small that feels like giving. So I thought I might give a photo and a story about it for each of the next twelve days. They’ll mostly Christmas things, because that is what fills my house with beauty right now. Sometimes the stories will be small if I’m having a very full day.

I’ll begin with my advent candle. I wrote about it a little more than a week ago when I described what I hoped to do as an advent practice. Unfortunately I haven’t sustained the advent effort on a daily basis, but I still burn the candle and think careful thoughts when I find the time. Candles in December make me happy. This year’s candle is more decorated than most. I usually just paint numbers, but my sister-in-law offered this up as a Thanksgiving project. So I painted while visiting with people I love. In only twelve days the candle will burn down to a stub. Between now and then, I’ll watch it shine bright.