I'm still wrapping my head around the fact that Nora turned 6 a couple weeks ago. The last year has been one incredible growth for her; she's learned to read, swim, ride a bike, ride a horse, write hilarious stories and tie her shoes. The transformation that happens during kindergarten is mind blowing, isn't it?
Nora continues to be a thoughtful, loving sister and a nurturer of animals. She still dreams of becoming a vet and is getting good practice caring for our dog, Finn, and her new baby hedgehog, Thistle. She has perfected a vicious lion roar, and today she added a spot-on chickadee call to her repertoire. She had chickadees peeking out of their nests and calling back to her!
Just this morning, Nora handed me a poem she had secretly written, inspired by an Emily Dickinson poem we read. It included these lines:
"I heard the sounds of nature.
I have heard the wildlife's voices.
I have listened to the wild.
All creatures big and small,
I am thankful for them."
I had to breathe deeply and pause a few times to finish reading her words without tears. My little observer. My sensitive soul. My grown-up 6-year-old.
We were heading to Topsail Island the week of Nora's birthday, so I planned to take her annual portraits at the beach—a throw-back to the portraits of her 3-year-old self collecting shells at Carolina Beach. My vision involved a blue-sky sunrise session filled with golden light, and the forecast was perfect for it.
But we woke up to thick fog. For a moment, my heart sunk. And then I realized Mother Nature's plan was so much better than my own.
Nora loves nothing more than being alone and deep in thought. When she falls into this state, you can always tell, because she unknowingly hums or sings to herself. If you look closely at some of these photos, you'll find she was singing her heart out to the ocean. Then she started to collect shells. And, finally, she started to find bits of washed-up fan coral. The fog served to isolate Nora in her own world, allowing the portraits to capture her to the core—wild haired, free spirited and lost in the utter peace of solitude.
Want to know two secrets to photographing toddlers? 1) Acceptance that they, not you, are going to dictate the session; and 2) a fast shutter speed to capture constant motion.
I didn't have a plan for Piper's 2-year-old session other than trying to convince her to hang out on the front porch with me. She took care of the rest in a way that turned out so much better than I ever could have orchestrated myself. These photos capture her in her element. They place her in the context both of her birth month (spring blooms) and our beloved home.
None of us has accepted that our tiny newborn Piper is already 2. She is joy. She is spunk. She is humor. She is mischief. She is an incredible communicator. Here is a sample of things that have come out of her mouth within the last 24 hours (no exaggerations, I swear):
In reference to the caterpillars we're raising on the kitchen counter, "Look, the caterpillars [pronounced abby-pillars] are in their chrysalides."
She spins the globe, places her finger on Asia and says without prompting, "This is Asia."
Her jokes are the best: "Woof, woof! I'm a chicken!"
I have so many favorite aspects of this parenting journey so far (and, of course, plenty moments I'd rather forget), but one of the most rewarding parts has been the bond Jeff, Cricket, Nora and I share of just loving on Piper and being in constant awe of her together. The big girls are just as sad about Piper growing up too fast as Jeff and I are. She is the perfect little exclamation point at the end of our family.
Back in November, my oldest daughter, Cricket, had the nerve to go and turn 7. It was only fitting that her annual portraits reflect what so much of the year revolved around: her newfound passion for riding. In addition to weekly riding lessons, she has amassed horse-related book and toy collections that are bursting from every shelf in the house. Horses have become a central part of her life, and by extension, ours. During her 7th year, equine literature took our minds all over the country and across the world to Europe, Africa and Australia. We're in deep.
What a momentous milestone it is to watch your child develop a talent that surpasses your own. This year, the skills Cricket has honed in riding, art and so many other creative and physical pursuits humbled us and showed us what she is truly made of. Each new interest and talent reminded us that she is not a carbon copy of either of her parents, but her own person finding her way in this world. We're learning that our role as her parents is shifting; instead of the constant care we provided during her earliest years, we now need to provide her with the tools and support to follow her dreams—and then step back and watch her soar (or fumble, which of course, is part of the deal too).
For her birthday, she picked out new riding clothes and wore them proudly in her portraits (some in our backwoods and some at the stable). I think this lesson was the last time she rode Red, the gentle old pony who taught her the basics. Now she's moved on to working with several other horses, but I want to remember sweet Red and the place he'll always hold in her heart. He's become a good buddy of all of ours.
As I finish this post, Cricket and I are packing up for our first just-the-two-of-us, mother-daughter, cross-country adventure since she was an infant. In some ways, I regret that it's been so long; in other ways, I'm proud of how much of a family unit we are—never feeling much desire to divide and conquer. I've always expected too much of this first child of mine, and yet she's always risen to the occasion. She deserves some time to just be my big girl instead of playing the constant role of big sister. Wheels up on this trip and year 8!
We might be past our last blast of winter, but I know many of you are still in the thick of it. I bet your kids will enjoy these wonderful books we recently read about the Arctic. I choose January to study the Arctic and Antarctica (which I'll post next), because it's probably our best shot of getting any snow down here in North Carolina.
Luckily for us, we did have two beautiful snow storms during this unit. What does a snow day look like in our homeschool? Plenty of sledding, hot chocolate, reading and art projects. It's not much different from our usual, casual approach to learning. The books below were a perfect addition to our cozy winter.
Identified and labeled the Arctic region on maps. Studied resident and migrant animals, migration, and adaptations to the extreme climate. Lots of snow play, sledding, snowball fights and building snow forts. Learned about snowflake formation, icebergs, ice caps and glaciers. Read about building an igloo. Wrote stories about Arctic animals. Made clay igloos, polar bears and arctic foxes. Studied "What Makes Night and Day" (and why nights and days have different lengths in the Arctic than where we live). Made sun and earth models out of clay to demonstrate rotating and revolving. Read about what why we have different seasons, and how those seasons vary from our own in the Arctic. Field trip: NC Zoo to visit the polar bears and arctic foxes.
My little sister, Mari, and I have a long history of collaboration. There was the time we built "Peggy Sue," a go-cart fashioned out of a doll crib and two pairs of rollerblades. Shortly thereafter, we upped our game with the help of our Grandpa Connors and made a more advanced go-cart out of wood and actual wheels, which we painted black with orange flames. (If I remember correctly, I always insisted on "driving" the go-cart while I made Mari push me around the cul-de-sac.) In adulthood, our collaborations have centered more around engagement photos and wedding invitations, newborn portraits and birth announcements. Despite the wide range of projects we've undertaken together, they all have one thing in common: somewhere along the way, things get ridiculous. Usually right off the bat.
Our most recent collaboration, a Living with Kids feature for our favorite blog, Design Mom, was no different. Mari called me at the end of December and said casually, "Umm, I may have promised Design Mom a house feature. I need you to fly up right away to style and shoot the house." I was on the plane to Minneapolis two weeks later.
We were both so pleased with how the feature turned out. But we also felt like we owed a bit of an explanation, lest anyone wonder how a family with two little kids who moved into their house four months earlier could already have it looking so spick and span and styled. Plus I think you'll enjoy the comedy of errors that ensued throughout the weekend.
First came the childcare debacle. My mom, who lives in Minneapolis, had generously kept her weekend open so she could watch my niece and nephew and cook dinners for all of us while we worked. My parents were also going to host me, so my sister didn't have to deal with the guest room while getting the rest of the house ready to photograph. And then, the night before the trip, my mom came down with a horrible case of the flu. She spent the weekend completely out of commission.
Then there was weather. The forecast in Minneapolis the morning of my arrival was 5-12 inches of snow with winds above 40 mph. I was worried my flight would get delayed or canceled, putting the project in peril. But we took off on time. The snow was heavy and visibility was next to nothing as we were on our final approach. Just as our wheels were about to touch down, I actually had this thought: "All hail, Minneapolis! They really can land us in anything."
And then all of a sudden, the plane pulled up sharply and began a rapid ascent. It was an uncomfortable minute before the pilot came on to tell us the plane landing ahead of us had slid. The runway was too slick, so air traffic control was sending us around to "try" another runway. Dear Lord, don't tell me you're going to "try" another runway! Just tell me we're "going to land" on a different runway. By that point, I was sure they were going to close the rest of the airport and land us in Iowa. So much for the photo shoot.
But 30 minutes later, we were safely on the ground in Minneapolis. Because Minneapolis really can handle anything! My dad picked me up at the airport and dropped me at my sister's house. It was the first time I had been to the new place, and I'll admit that when I walked in, my first thought was: there is NO WAY we can finish styling and shooting the house this weekend.
You see, most people finish decorating their houses and THEN decide to submit photos for a home tour. My sister, however, decided to use the home tour as a kick-in-the-pants to finish the decorating process. She had basically lived at Target and Ikea for the couple weeks leading up to the shoot. She had a vision, and she had the necessary items to make it happen. But she's also a full-time mom to a baby and a toddler and has some part-time gigs on the side, so there was still a wee bit of work to be done to style the house.
We got right down to it. While one of us cleaned and straightened and arranged, the other tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep the kids from tearing everything apart. The kids thought their auntie was so fun they refused to nap. At all. The whole trip. (Remember how our mom/babysitter was down with the flu?)
One morning, my nephew had preschool. We decided my sister would drop him off and bring the baby, so I could scurry around and try to style and photograph a few rooms while the house was empty. When Mari returned, I was running around working so furiously I had stripped down to a t-shirt. "You know it's 7 below zero outside, right?" she asked. (I forgot to mention the temperature didn't crack zero the whole trip.) And so it went.
At one point, I was organizing toy bins on a book shelf while Mari was arranging her office space. She peeked around the corner and said, "So, did you ever envision yourself becoming a professional stuffed-animal stylist?" We actually had to take a break to roll around on the floor laughing. As usual, our collaboration was perfectly ridiculous.
But here's the message we really want to get across: the house we styled and photographed is Mari's house at its very best. It's her house when the toys are all placed back in their baskets, the kids are playing gently on the living room floor, and no one is tearing around the playroom at full speed, so you can actually leave a cup of coffee on a tray perched on the ottoman. It's the one section of the kitchen that wasn't too overwhelming to clean. It's the side of the mudroom with the cute hooks and shelves and boots, not the corner by the door that's heaped with melting snow and discarded snow pants. The tour we created is genuine. But it's the version of their house you'd walk into when they're hosting a party, not the one you'd find two hours before the party.
People ask me all the time over on my Instagram feed how I keep my house clean and orderly, and I have to remind them that, in addition to being a minimalist, I'm always kicking toys out of the frame, because I like to take beautiful photos of ordinary life. As a photographer, I enjoy the challenge of creating images that represent my life and home at their best. Mari's home tour is the same. So we hope you'll enjoy it for what it is and what it isn't, and get a good laugh out of our behind-the-scenes adventures—no insecurities necessary.
(P.S. Predictably, when I got to my gate to fly home, I looked out the window to find another white out. Were we delayed? Naw, not in Minneapolis.)
Each January I try to compile a summary of some of our most poignant moments, experiences and projects of the closing year. As I spent the last month piecing together 2017 in photos and writing and hazy-mom-brain memories, one broad theme emerged.
But first I’ll start with our travel adventures. The year began by welcoming and photographing new babies in New York, Minneapolis and Berkeley. We tracked wild horses on the Outer Banks. We visited family in Minneapolis (again) and explored my old haunts in the city I’ll never stop calling home. We celebrated 20 years of friendship in Utah with my high school Swiss Semester group and their incredible families. We met sea turtles and collected shark teeth at Topsail Island. We hiked peaks in the Blue Ridge to take in the fall foliage spilling across the mountains. We explored frozen waterfalls at Hanging Rock.
We spent a lot of time at home too. We cleared a little trail system through the back woods, so we could take short walks without leaving the yard. We began our first landscaping attempts in the front yard to make it a more pleasant space to play and ride bikes. And, most significantly, we embarked on the great experiment of home education.
The overarching theme of our year was this: learning.
Last year, we watched in deep, jaw-dropping disappointment as the world into which we thought we had brought three lives began to devolve around us. Ignorance won a seat at the head of the table, and with it, the unconscionable willingness—and even insistence—of so many to leave the world significantly worse than they found it for our kids and their peers. Empathy, critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning? Out the window.
So as parents, we spent a lot of our year learning what our kids are up against. The blinders came off. On the flip side, we also watched and learned from individuals and organizations who rose up and unified to fight for social justice, for science, for women, for the environment, for our kids and their generation. Now we better understand how to prepare our kids’ hearts and minds for their future, and who our allies and role models are in these efforts.
These realizations greatly informed how I defined teaching and learning in our homeschool. A few months ago, I wrote a post about some of my educational goals, which center on empathy, global citizenship and critical thinking. The year reaffirmed our commitment to raising children who value life-long learning, who will seek knowledge over ignorance at every turn, and who will demand no less from the world around them.
By removing the noise of schedules imposed on us by the traditional school system, we freed up more time for the girls to immerse themselves in meaningful activities without the rush, without the busyness, and with plenty of time left over for one of the most crucial aspects of childhood: free play.
An unexpected high point of our learning experience last year was that the girls decided they wanted to start horseback riding, and we became more of a part of the stable community than we otherwise could have been. (A heart-felt thank you to their wonderful and wonderfully patient instructor, Kelly, and to the owner of the stable, Piper.) The girls also had incredible experiences at writing and arts camps at Duke Lemur Center and Carolina Tiger Rescue—opportunities we may have turned down if we hadn’t started to manage our time in a non-traditional way.
Throughout the year, we also began learning how to navigate the peanut-laced world in a slightly different way after Cricket completed her peanut desensitization clinical trial (oral immunotherapy) at UNC in January 2017. For 32 months, the trial was a large and emotional part of our daily lives—a story for another day. The fantastic news was that Cricket passed the last challenge, demonstrating she had increased her ability to tolerate peanuts from a few specks of peanut dust to16 peanuts.
The problem is that the immune system is a fickle thing and won’t promise the same results every day. Since the trial, Cricket has reacted twice to the daily dose of peanut she takes to maintain her desensitization, now six Reese’s Pieces, which is far less exposure than the amount she took during the last challenge. These reactions serve as reminders to us that desensitization is not a cure; it simply offers Cricket the best level of protection available from a life-threatening reaction. So with that information we move forward, navigating restaurants and birthday parties and airplanes, operating in that gray area of trying to learn to loosen some of the reigns but never truly knowing where the limits lie that day.
Yes, I’d say learning was our grand theme of 2017. We learned a lot about disappointment. We learned a lot from people doing deeply good work. We learned how to buck cultural norms when they stood in the way of our family’s dreams.
My goal for the coming year? It’s simple: to keep actively and intentionally learning.
We finished up our study of the African continent just before the holidays with a week-long focus on Egypt. I suspect you'll enjoy reading the books we found. Our favorites were the top two on the list.
North Africa (Egypt)
Located and labeled Egypt on map. Read about contemporary Egypt and the Nile. Wrote stories set in Egypt. Studied Nile crocodiles and painted pictures of them. Studied ancient Egypt and read letter from Isabelle (Letters from Afar) about her exploration of Egypt and the Great Pyramids. Compared and contrasted “The Egyptian Cindarella” and Disney’s “Cinderella” using a Venn diagram. Spent a day studying, drawing and writing about caracals (wild cats) at the Carolina Tiger Rescue.
I've been documenting the world around me in writing and photographs since I was 6 years old without understanding exactly why I feel this need. But it's so intensely rooted that I've never shaken it or even tried. Over time I've learned there is something profound in simply bearing witness, in allowing your actions and work to say, "'I am here, and I see you."
Along the way, I've witnessed perhaps some of the deepest pain and the greatest joys life can offer, as well as all that good stuff caught in between that makes up daily existence. If we are living well, we are continually bearing witness to those around us in various ways. But when clients specifically ask me to serve as witness to a moment or phase or milestone? It's nothing short of an honor.
I've been honored to photograph this family, these friends, on four occasions now. (You can find their previous sessions here, here and here.) Last year was truly one of new beginnings for them. Their new house represents just a small portion of these beginnings, but I wanted to make sure it figured prominently in the images as their base camp. Beyond the obvious beauty of this home and the love this family has for one another, a stunning element I witnessed during this session was one they'll never take for granted: restored energy.
To view more lifestyle portraits, click here.
One of my favorite parts of planning portrait sessions is helping each family select a location that is significant to them. Not only is Pittsboro's Fearrington Village a prominent place in this family's current routines, but it's also where the couple hosted their rehearsal dinner years ago. They have so many joyful memories here that it was a natural decision to capture them strolling around the farm and gardens. (And the fact that this family and this place are also special to me made the session particularly meaningful for me too.)
To view more lifestyle portraits, click here.
These books about West Africa might just be my favorite batch yet. "One Hen" and "One Plastic Bag" are based on the true stories of incredible people whose innovative ideas, sacrifice and hard work transformed their communities for the better. Warning: When you read these stories, the words may catch in your throat when you understand where they are going. "Yatandou" is a powerful and beautifully illustrated fictional account of how technology can improve the lives of those living in poverty. "Deep in the Sahara" tells the story of a young girl learning that the women in her family wear the mulafa (hijab) because of their faith. It's a simple lesson that may answer a question you didn't realize your children might have.
West Africa (Ghana, the Gambia, Mali and Mauritania)
Inspired by Isatou Ceesay and the women from “One Plastic Bag,” built something useful from our recycling: a picnic basket. Then packed up the basket and took it on a picnic. Inspired by “One Hen,” pooled allowance money and bought a gift for a family in need from Heifer International: a flock of chicks. Wrote fact sheet on the sand cat’s adaptations for desert living. Drew sand cats and their kittens. Visited the NC Zoo's desert dome to visit the sand cat and other desert dwellers.
More Around the World Book Lists
East Africa (Part I)
East Africa (Part II) and Central Africa
North Africa (Egypt)
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I'm Julia Soplop. I've spent my life documenting the world around me in writing and photography. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.