Each January, I try to spend some time reflecting on the previous year and setting intentions for the New Year. My goal is to take stock of my own accomplishments by my own metrics—by identifying the experiences I found most valuable, not by anyone else's standards of success.
I'm still pinching myself that my work appeared on my favorite spot on the internet, the incredible Design Mom blog, not once but twice in 2018. The first was my sister's home tour, which I styled and shot in Minneapolis during a blizzard weekend. The second was my own home tour and accompanying essay. For real? My heart still starts to race when I remember these things actually happened.
I really slacked on posting professional photography work here on the blog in 2018, but maybe I'll find the time to catch up it the New Year? (Or maybe not.)
Intro photography course
As a home school educator, I began to look for an introductory photography curriculum for my elementary schoolers last spring and couldn't turn up anything impressive for their ages. So I set out to fill that void and wrote an 85-page, downloadable intro course for elementary and middle schoolers called Documenting Your World. (You can find it here.) Folks, kids can learn so much about photography before they're ready to take a high school course. Don't sell them short by making them wait!
I'm going to announce some REALLY BIG news about this course within the next couple weeks, so please stay tuned. And if you run into me on the street before then, I'll probably talk your ear off about it, because I'm so excited. I apologize in advance.
I had the pleasure of taking on some branding, graphic design, writing, and editing work this year for my sister, Mari Melby, as she expanded her business offerings. (We had so much fun teaming up for her home tour that we couldn't stop there!) My favorite project was working with her to design The Intention-Based Planner, which we just launched in December. (The Annual Reflections and Annual Intentions pages of the planner helped me plan this blog post and get my mind wrapped around 2019.) It's a printable planner we hope will help you live with more focus, intentionality, and energy.
My last living grandparent, Jane Connors, passed away in September. I wrote this tribute to her and would love for you to read it. I think it's my favorite piece I've written all year. In true Connors fashion, we convened in Minneapolis and celebrated the heck out of Grandma's life. I know she would have loved every minute of our family gathering.
We're in the middle of our second year of homeschool—words I never imagined I would say. Home educator is one of the most challenging roles I've ever taken on, but goodness, it's been so rewarding. I don't know how many years I'll last, but I love being able to give my girls this experience while it makes sense for our family. I may, on occasion, accidentally write history and science curriculum for them at a college level rather than an elementary level, however they always tackle it with curiosity and grace and never cease to amaze me. This school year has been the year of the horse here in our homeschool, and I have a feeling some of the curriculum I pulled together is going to turn into a larger writing project for 2019.
I posted a couple fun DIYs this year:
How to frame your photos for big impact on the cheap
Desk refinishing project
We didn't slow down our travel schedule at all with the first two kids. Some trips were fantastic. Others were rather terrible and involved fevers and vomiting and urgent care visits. We've cut down a bit on spontaneous trips since Piper arrived (lessons learned), but we still ended up with a busy year of travel. Highlights included Minneapolis (twice), Lake Superior, Berkeley, Montana/Wyoming, the Outer Banks, Topsail Island, and Asheville. I didn't share much about travel on the blog last year, but I posted a lot of travel and lifestyle photography on Instagram. Join me over there?
Jeff and I have been trying to spring each other loose at least once a year for a longer solo trip, which has worked well and allowed us time for actual relaxation that doesn't exist when traveling with young kids. Jeff has gone to surf camp in Costa Rica the last few years. I usually require some Rocky Mountain time. (I wish we could escape more as a couple, but we don't have the opportunity to leave the kids right now.)
In a surprise twist...politics made me furious again this year. Two results of this anger (besides making lots of donations and voting my heart out) were: 1) I started to grind my teeth for the first time in my life (no joke) and 2) I wrote this satirical letter. The response the letter generated was phenomenal. Some of the messages I received from women who have experienced sexual violence brought me to tears. I see you. I hear you.
Looking back over the year, I'd say the majority of experiences I valued most were not things I planned; they fell into my lap, and then I ran with them. Something I've begun to learn over the years as a parent, educator, and creative professional is to make space in my life—both emotionally and logistically—to be able to say yes to unexpected opportunities. One of the jobs I take most seriously is playing defense for my family and for myself against the pressures of taking on too many structured obligations at the expense of time and energy for creative pursuits. I'm not going to lie. This year felt busy. It would be impossible to have three kids and numerous ongoing projects and not feel like you're always behind. But I think overall, we hit the nail on the head in terms of balancing structured and unstructured time. I don't mean we lounged around during unstructured time, but that we had enough of it to pursue opportunities that arose and accomplish some really fulfilling things with our time.
In 2019, my overarching intention is to maintain a similar balance for our family of structured and unstructured time, leaving the door open to grasp exciting opportunities as they arrive. And along the way, I hope to get a few things done:
One large writing project: I've started the research and writing on a larger project (teaser: horses) and hope to spend a lot of time on in it in 2019. I don't have a goal of completing the project on a certain time line, but I'd like to make substantial progress on it this year.
Photography: Just say no—not to personal photography but to projects I'm not excited about. I'm going to be more selective about the work I take on and more assertive when someone tries to take advantage of my skills.
Travel: Always! I'd like to take at least one or two solo trips to recharge and encourage Jeff to do the same. I've got a few ideas for family trips but want to leave a lot of open space for spontaneous travel opportunities.
Homeschool: The girls told me one of their favorite parts of school time is working on our nature journals together. I feel the same. I want to make sure to prioritize that activity this spring and let curiosity drive our learning. I also want the girls to spend more time writing and less time memorizing content from the social studies unit I painstakingly (over) developed. We'll pick up where we leave off next fall!
Presence with my family: When you're a full-time parent, a home educator, and have a few part-time gigs (and almost no childcare), it's impossible to be present at all times for all people. Plus I think it's good for my kids to know I'm not at their beck and call at all times; I have a life and other responsibilities, too! That said, there's plenty of opportunity to reduce endless scrolling or constant thinking of how I'm going to cross off the next item on my to-do list. In 2019, I don't want to aim for an unrealistic goal of being fully present for everyone at all times, but rather to allow myself to be fully present when it counts most—on family excursions, when my kids are anxious about something, when they genuinely need or want my attention.
Happy New Year! And Happy Intention Setting!
In December Jeff had a business trip to Colorado, so the rest of us tagged along to enjoy some time in the mountains before my travel ban set in. The altitude of our usual stomping grounds is a bit too high for my nauseated state, so we explored new territory in the Grand Lake area, which borders the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Let me tell you: 8,500 feet feels so much better than 9,500 feet and above.
Lucky for us, one of my sisters and her family live in Denver and joined our adventure. We rented a cute little cabin together, which worked out well...once the neighbor came over to help us thaw the frozen pipes. The girls were quite taken with my nephew, Theo, whose 1st birthday is approaching more quickly than I'd like to believe. (Remember his birth announcement? Wasn't that just yesterday?)
Since downhill skiing wasn't exactly an option for some of us (me) this year, we spent the weekend snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking and building snow forts. And drinking a lot of coffee. And eating a morning-long brunch at the legendary Fat Cat Cafe, where the cinnamon rolls sit firmly on the entree table, not the dessert table, so they don't count as treats. My only regret of the trip was not capturing a photo of the brilliant red fox we watched bounding through the snow outside the cabin one morning.
We might try to squeeze in another day trip or two this winter—a beach visit, perhaps—but mostly I'm hunkering down now, fixing up the nursery and trying to accomplish those challenging tasks like taking a full breath and fitting food into my stomach.
I'll admit it. All the snowy photos from the Rockies that are filling my Instagram feed this week are making me a bit heartsick for the West. But I can't complain, because we've got it pretty good here too; fall goes on forever. We spent a cozy, drizzly Halloween in Asheville with my sister and her family. One of the best parts of the weekend was having an entire apple orchard to ourselves the morning after Halloween, which we deemed "the introvert's dream activity." What could be better than bright leaves and a silent, misty, mountainous apple orchard?
The girls' favorite part of apple picking? Finding the tiniest apples.
The Blue Ridge Parkway wasn't looking too shabby this time of year either. I love to drive it while the littlest one is napping in the car.
I couldn't get enough of this gorgeous amaranth in my sister's yard either.
It's been a while since I've posted anything under the "Around the House" category, but I have a few ideas to rejuvenate it. Our new house sits on a beautiful wooded lot packed with a variety of trees and wildlife. I haven't had much time to explore yet, but I thought it be fun to share what I find throughout the different seasons.
Fall color is variable in our area of North Carolina. Some years the leaves disappear after subtle changes. Some years the trees provide bright color but stagger it across several weeks, so we don't experience a true peak. And then other years are spectacular, like what you'd find up north. (It's hard to compete with the fall colors of my childhood in Minnesota.) The week before Cricket was born five years ago was the most beautiful fall I've experienced since living here. I won't ever forget it, since I spent that week walking and walking and walking around the neighborhood trying to convince her that it was time to make her big debut.
I have high hopes for fall color this year. As you can see, we're off to a splendid start.
I'll admit I'm happy (overjoyed?) to say goodbye to this summer and welcome a fresh season, my favorite one. The humidity is waning, the temperatures are, hopefully, finally down from the 90's for the year and we're settling into our new house. It doesn't quite feel like home yet, but with every box we open and picture we hang, we're getting closer.
My blog has suffered big time this summer, and I regret not documenting our five weeks of travel here. I love having a record of our year, so I may backtrack a bit and post some trip photos this fall. Or maybe I'll just move on and start showing you the new house. Now that the girls are back in school a few mornings each week, I have some creative time back on my hands and I'm just going to see where it goes.
In the meantime, here are a few snaps from June in the Outer Banks (which will be forever known as our own personal shark week). You won't often find me in front of the lens, but I took some portraits with Jeff's side of the family and snuck in one just of our little crew (thank you tripod and Triggertrap—love this device). These people make me happy.
As we've been dying eggs and prepping for brunch, I've been thinking about last year's Easter in Asheville and can't believe I never got around posting these photos. They capture something magical; my sister, niece and I woke up early, drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched Easter sunrise over the mountains. Whether you're celebrating this weekend or not, I think you'll enjoy these landscapes. They remind me: always we begin again.
Fog over the French Broad River with moon still in view.
And then, out of the fog, emerged...cows.
I snapped this photo of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC, on Good Friday as we randomly drove by. I couldn't believe the sun was catching right on the cross at that moment.
When we're planning outdoor adventures in North Carolina, we tend to think about the beach and mountains. But, oh my. We've been missing out on something else that's been just under our noses this whole time. The Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula is the piece of land that juts out toward the Outer Banks, bordered by the Albemarle Sound to the north and the Pamlico Sound to the south. It consists mostly of pocosin marshlands and is divided between soggy farmland and several wildlife refuges. We drive through the northern edges of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on our way to the Outer Banks every summer, but had only stopped a few times at the visitor center at Pocosin Lakes to stretch our legs along its boardwalk.
Then Jeff and I read "The Secret World of Red Wolves" and got sort of obsessed with the idea of exploring this area. The peninsula is the only place in the world where red wolves live in the wild; they became functionally extinct and were reintroduced here through a captive breeding program. It also sits along the Atlantic Flyway and hosts hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate south for the winter in some of the state's largest natural lakes, called Carolina bays. And it has, depending on the source, the highest concentration of black bears either on the East Coast or in the Southeast. Plus the landscape is amazing and unique.
There aren’t really places to eat or stay on the peninsula, so we decided to pack a cooler and take a long day trip.
Above: The Mattamuskeet Lodge. This structure was originally a pumping station, then a hunting lodge and now it's uninhabitable but listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If the state can ever find enough money, they may convert it back to a lodge.
Below: First we stopped in the old fishing village of Swan Quarter (where you can catch a ferry to Ocracoke), poked around the harbor and made friends with a group of cheerful 10-year-olds who surrounded us and asked, "Are y'all from out of town?!"
(These photos are a mix of iPhone and Canon 7D images.)
This is what all the farmland on the peninsula looks like: super soggy and carved with drainage canals. Those white dots in the background are tundra swans.
We made several stops for walks and photos at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This place is so lovely. The entire lake is no more than "a swan's neck" deep—best expression ever—though it's 14 miles long and 5 miles wide.
We were thrilled to watch this beaver swimming around right next to us...until it climbed up on the bank...without a beaver tail. It turns out it's actually a nutria, or river rat, which is an invasive species of rodent from South America. Nora kept trying to drag me over to pat it. Umm, I think I'll stay clear of those giant orange teeth, thank you.
Tundra swans in the distance in one of the many canals around the lake.
Tundra swans swimming in Pungo Lake at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Swans over Lake Mattamuskeet.
Swans above, swans below. Lake Mattamuskeet.
Where I grew up, ski team practice was in full swing by this time of the year and the neighborhood ice skating rink was calling to us during every other waking moment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss an almost-guaranteed white Christmas or a community that thrives on snow and all the adventures it blows in.
But as unfamiliar as a temperate holiday season still feels after all these years, I really can't complain. What's better than the North Carolina coast in the summer? The North Carolina coast in the fall and winter, when the beaches are deserted, the sand is still warm and the surfing is good.
On our most recent trip, I did Cricket's 4-year photo session on the beach at sunrise. And, since we hadn't taken a family portrait in more than a year, I decided we should give it a go...Let's just say the first attempt wasn't pretty, but I dragged everyone out again later in the afternoon and got a few photos that make us smile.
Above: The girls in their natural state: running circles around us.
Below: The girls and Jeff being bribed into sitting still and smiling by their Papa waving a bag of Skittles behind the camera.
We have a tradition of spending a fall mountain weekend with my sister and her family in Asheville, which involves activities like apple picking, hiking and baking. Each year we set the date in hopes that our trip will coincide with peaking foliage. Some years we've hit it on the nose; other years we're off by a week or two. This year we could smell success as we drove west toward the mountains, color erupting around us.
What we didn't anticipate was a freak winter storm that blew in on Halloween night and dropped snow over the brilliant leaves. My sister and I, Minnesota natives, couldn't remember a single time in our lives we had seen snow accumulate over peaking leaves—and certainly not in the subtropical state of North Carolina.
But let's back up a moment. Here is what her backyard looked like on the afternoon of Halloween.
My sister and I took a walk that afternoon. She showed me a slave graveyard, tucked into these peaceful woods. In all the years I've visited her in Asheville, I never knew this graveyard was a stone's throw from her home.
The littles requested that instead of trick-or-treating, we hide the candy around the yard like the Easter egg hunt we did earlier this year. It was a smashing victory for all. Then we went to sleep and woke up to an inch of snow—just enough to cover the ground and add stunning contrast to the changing leaves.
The snow was perfectly sticky for snowballs. Poor Nora had forgotten what it felt like to be cold and started to cry in confusion over why her hands hurt.
We tried to drive the girls up to the Blue Ridge Parkway so we could take in the view while they napped, but we only made it a few hundred feet before finding it closed due to weather.
By midday the snow (and winter) had melted in the valley, and we were back to blustery fall day.
We've been on a fall travel binge with two mountain trips over the last two weeks and a blustery beach trip just ahead. How lucky we are to have family sprinkled across the country in so many beautiful places. Our area doesn't typically have a dramatic leaf peak, so we headed up to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley for some color and cousin time. (You can find posts on our last summer trip to Virginia here and our last winter trip here.)
I've become a serial drive-by photographer. Jeff drives (and rolls his eyes at me) while I take photos out the window with my iPhone. Here are a few shots from our late afternoon drive over the mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley.
The leaves weren't quite peaking in the valley, but as we drove up the mountain to Shenandoah National Park for a hike, we wove through bands of red, yellow and orange. By the time we reached the park's highest elevations, the leaves had mostly fallen.
No hike is complete without getting a lift from your older cousin along the way, right?
I kept walking around a bend to find my niece waiting for me, ready to pose for a photo.
On our way out of town, we stopped at Carter Mountain Orchard in Charlottesville to pick apples. Cricket was so excited she choreographed an apple dance.
We've been on the road and in the skies so much this year that I haven't gotten a chance to post about each trip, but I've been spending a lot of time on Instagram. You can find me at @jsoplop. (You don't need an Instagram account to view my photos.)
I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. 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.