My, my it was another busy year. I'm tired just thinking about it. But I'm also proud of Calm Cradle's growth and looking forward to all the projects and adventures to come in 2014.
2013: A year in review
Personal: I began 2013 with a newly minted 2-year-old and an 8-month-old...and I'm still alive and standing! Watching the girls grow into a preschooler and a toddler this year has been amazing, mind-boggling and exhausting. One friend who also has kids 17 months apart told me that during the early years, every day brought the "highest highs and the lowest lows." I second that. Last year was indeed filled with ups and downs, but we've come out the other end with two little girls who love to play together (before the playing turns into tackling, hair-pulling and crying), jump off anything they can find to climb, work busily on art projects and explore the outdoors. Their increased independence and fewer completely sleepless nights (thank you, ear tubes x four) left me more time to create, photograph and write than I've been able to do in the last few years. It felt good to develop ideas and then actually be able to follow through on them—with many interruptions and on a different timeline than I might have imagined several years ago. But still.
Travel: We took 10 family trips this year, which I documented in Adventures. (Most of them were working trips for Jeff, and I don't even want to tally up all his additional business travel or I might cry). Our family trips included: Blue Ridge Mountains (here and here), Orlando (here, here and here), Charlottesville, DC, Denver, Boulder/Summit County, Naples, Outer Banks (here, here and here), Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Asheville. We've flown so much with the girls I decided to offer up some tips on flying with young kids, too. Travel with kids is tiring, but we can't help ourselves. Exploring the world around us is a major part of who we are, and we want to instill that value in our kids. Plus we get bored if we stay home too long.
Photography: After years in the making, I officially launched Calm Cradle's children's photography division this fall. I also began migrating my nature photography shop to Society6. And, of course, I took an overwhelming number of photos of our family.
Writing: I wrote a novel! No biggie. I also wrote nearly 70 blog posts. (I bill myself more as a photographer on this website, but really I've always considered myself a writer first and photographer second.)
Design: This year was busy on the design front. I rebranded, redesigned my website (and just updated "Popular posts" on the right-hand sidebar), learned how to design fabric patterns (here, here and here) and created my sister's wedding invitation package, which I'll share with you soon.
2014: A look ahead
Personal: Perhaps my most important goal for the new year is to continually re-balance—and give myself a break when things don't go the way I planned. More than three years as a parent has taught me that "finding balance" is a constant process. Kids, routines and the rest of life change on a dime, so finding balance means constant readjustment. I'm a creature of habit, so this realization has been a difficult one. Instead of setting my expectations for tomorrow based on today, I need to accept that flexibility and shifting expectations is not only okay but necessary to survive and enjoy the next few decades of family life.
As part of that flexibility, another goal is to focus more on my girls when I am with them. I remember seeing moms at the park spend more time playing on their phones than engaging with their kids. I vowed I would never be that kind of mom. And now I'm glued to my phone, for no good reason other than being addicted to it. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge believer in free play and letting the kids entertain themselves, but I fear that I'm too distracted these days.
I haven't come up with any brilliant strategies to accomplish these goals and am looking for suggestions. How do you re-balance and manage your distractions to live in the moment?
Travel: We have a two big trips coming up early in the year and then will probably make our usual family visits, plus one or two extras. Our family travel felt a bit excessive last year, so this year we plan to be more deliberate about trip planning. For example, we used to plan back-to-back trips. Over the last few years, we've learned that travel disrupts family life quite a bit (time changes, plane-contracted illness and getting out of the routine are all rough on kids). So we'll try to build in more down time between trips to re-charge.
Photography: I'm in no rush to grow my children's photography aspect of my business too quickly, since I'm still a full-time mom. I plan to offer mini sessions in the spring (April/May) and fall (October/November) and take full sessions as I can fit them in. As always, I'll continue to build my nature photography portfolio and migrate that work to my Society6 shop, as well as document our daily adventures as a family. I'd also like to build a larger following on Instagram. Any suggestions on how to do that?
Writing: At some point, I'll pick the novel back up, do a serious read-through and define a strategy to tackle the next draft. But I'm not sure when that will happen. Working at the NanoWriMo pace was not sustainable given our other commitments, so I need to figure out how to move forward in a more manageable way. I'd also like to write a few more informal essays this year.
Design: I plan to continue to learn new design skills, software and sewing techniques. (My sewing goals are embarrassingly basic: learn how to choose the right stitch for a project and sew a straight line). I'm also considering adding a dedicated design category to the blog.
Business: When I have a good week—defined by these things: the girls are healthy, happy and independent; Jeff is in town and available to help with wake-up and bedtime routines and I feel a sense of accomplishment with Calm Cradle—I become overly ambitious. I plan to take huge steps forward with my blog and business. I think I can squeeze more and more projects into my day. And then, inevitably, the next day or the next week, the kids get sick and swear off sleep, my husband hops a plane for a business trip and I get crabby and stressed and fall behind on everything I had planned. I lose confidence and momentum. So my most significant business goal for the year is to go with the flow. If advertisers approach me, I'll consider them for the blog. If the children's photography aspect continues to pick up, I'll consider stepping back a bit from blogging to focus on portraits. And if things get too crazy with family life to make much progress on either front this year, then there's always next year, right?
This week Calm Cradle Photo & Design turns 2 years old. It continues to amaze me that people out there are interested in hearing what I have to say, seeing how I view the world through photography and even hiring me to document a part of their own lives. Thank you for playing a role in this grand adventure. I look forward to spending 2014 with you!
I wrote a novel this month—or a rushed, fragmented, type-every-thought-that-comes-to-mind first draft of a novel. It's not in good enough shape to share with anyone yet (if something happens to me before I get to write the second draft, please burn it STAT). But I did it. Here are a few reflections on participating in NaNoWriMo.
The month went something like this:
I kid you not, everyone in my family fell ill on November 1, and we alternated or overlapped viruses until the day I finished on November 26. And then miraculously that night, everyone became healthy and began to sleep again.
Once I let go of my tendencies as a planner and perfectionist, the writing itself came easily. It was freeing not to be constantly trying to make a thousand decisions about tense and voice and style and pacing. The goal for this month was to write. Furiously. So I made a few choices right off that bat and stuck with them until the end.
The toughest aspect turned out to be finding the time to write. I was cranky and stressed until I got at least four or five hundred words down each day, then I felt a little less cranky. (I knew that if I got behind on my word count I'd lose motivation to finish.) By the time I completed a decent word count of around 2,000 words each day, I was exhausted—and even crankier.
I broke the goal of 50,000 words on November 21, but the story was nowhere near finished. I thought I would spend the next week frantically trying to tie up the story, but boy did my enthusiasm wane. That week, we hosted Cricket's birthday party and Thanksgiving and I sent my sister's wedding invitation package to the printers. All I wanted to think about was buying Christmas gifts and mailing holiday cards! I officially called it on November 26, having written 60,107 words during the month for a total of nearly 90,000 over the last few years.
The finale was a bit anticlimactic since we jumped into Thanksgiving preparations the next day. But I'll admit: I'm proud of myself. Sure I took shortcuts on keeping the family going, consumed too much sugar and caffeine and let Cricket watch too much TV, but we'll recover from all that. The important thing is I've more or less got a draft of a novel in hand. A novel!
I am grateful to my husband for taking the girls out for little adventures on the weekends, so I could steal a few extra hours to write. He also encouraged me to keep going every time I told him that maybe this was a silly, worthless project. He has faith that I have a story worth turning into a book, even when I'm wavering. I am grateful to my girls for loving me through all my many creative distractions, this month and all the others. And I am grateful to all the rest of my friends and family for cheering me on. (My mom would send me emails that ended with: "P.S. Why are you reading this email? You should be writing!")
Would I participate in NaNoWriMo again?
Yes and no. With my commitment to my young kids and Calm Cradle, November was grueling. I felt continuous guilt over sneaking in writing time at the expense of spending time with to the girls, and with so little sleep on top of so little sleep, adding an intensive writing project to our life was challenging. That said, this intensive exercise fit my personality well. I've also been brewing this story for four years, so I had a lot of pent-up ideas ready to hit the page when it was go time.
Although I don't envision participating again in the next couple years, if I finish this project and have another story idea in the future, when sleep is more predictable and the girls are in school, I would absolutely consider participating again.
Advice on joining NaNoWriMo
Announce to your family and friends that you are participating in NaNoWriMo for three reasons: you need their support, they need to know why you're ignoring them and it will keep you accountable. I wrote a post here announcing my goal, then posted word count updates on Facebook along the way. I didn't want to have to slink away after telling everyone I'd write 50,000 by the end of November, so I had to keep writing.
Write as much as you can the first weekend, then try to write something each day. My sister gave me the great advice to jam the first few days to get ahead and boost my confidence. It worked. Even if you can't make your word count goal each day, don't get out of the habit of writing or you'll quickly lose momentum.
Develop a game plan, then adjust to reality: My schedule is unpredictable, because it revolves around when my girls are napping, entertaining themselves and sleeping at night. Some days, none of those things happen. Other days, some of those things happen. (They never all happen in one day, right?) So it was difficult to have a strict writing regime. Throughout the month, I realized that if I could find a few minutes here and there throughout the morning and get four- to six-hundred words down before nap time, I'd be in the writing mindset and have my daily word count goal in sight when Nora went down for a short nap. You can write a lot in 45 minutes if you know it's the only time the house will be quiet all day. I also wrote in the evenings if I needed to finish up, but ideally I'd have my word count done by then so I could spend some time catching up on the more menial tasks I had on my plate that day.
Remind yourself every 20 seconds that if you stick to your guns, you'll write the draft of a novel in just one month. Squeezing in time to write a few thousand extra words each day on top of your regular life is tough. But it's concentrated. You'll be flipping the calendar in just 30 days, so let the laundry pile up, don't even consider vacuuming the house and make the kids entertain themselves.
We have a celebratory dinner date planned for this week, and you better believe there will be champagne. Buckets full. Maybe next year you'll be celebrating, too?
Above: A ranch nestled between the Gore Range and the Blue River in Summit County, Colorado. As of now, the story ends right around here.
I am grateful. In fact, I am grateful for so many things this year I don't even know where to begin. So I started out by reading my Thanksgiving post from last year and realized that, despite all the changes this year has brought, the things for which I am grateful are pretty much the same.
I am grateful for my family. The girls continue to grow and change at lightning speed, and I am continually in awe of them. Watching my husband love them and share in their care brings even more joy. (And his patience with my endless projects, many of which require his help in some form, is unparalleled.) Each time I see my nieces and nephews, they blow me away with their new skills and the energy they have to take the world by storm. I see in each of them the brightest of futures. Unlike the last several years, this year didn't bring any new babies into the family. But I am grateful to know that in just a few months, our family will grow with the addition of my new brother-in-law! (Marriage is apparently the only way boys join my side of the family.)
Our year was not without losses. My grandpa passed away in May, which still takes the wind out of me when I realize all over again that he is gone. I will forever be grateful for his influence on my life. Over the last few years, we have watched my parents and their siblings give so much of themselves to care for their aging parents. I am grateful for the example they have set for us that, truly, family is everything.
We also lost our beloved companion, Austin, early this year. He stood by us, tail wagging, through more than a decade of life. Amazingly, Cricket still talks about him all the time—how he was a good boy, how we miss him. I hear her telling Nora about him. I am grateful that even though she was just over 2 years old when he died, she got a chance to love him and experience his love.
I am grateful for my friends. As usual, many of them have had a blockbuster year filled with weddings, babies, exciting new jobs and adventures. For some, this year has been, to put it lightly, a challenge. I am grateful that they find the strength to keep going—to repair, to heal, to move forward. And I am particularly grateful that one of my wonderful friends finished more than a year of chemo last week.
I am grateful to the online community I joined almost two years ago with this blog and shop. You validate the need I have always had to create, and you inspire me with new ideas every single day.
Also, I am grateful that so much of the time, my girls are doing something like this:
Okay this is what they actually look like most of the time, but I am grateful that they will be tough cookies if they manage to survive each other:
As November looms, I'm starting to hyperventilate. Why? Because November is National Novel Writing Month, and I'm finally planning to finish a draft of the novel I've been sketching and researching and outlining and beginning to draft for a few years now.
Though I'm a life-long writer, my work has almost exclusively rested within the realm of nonfiction. I'm not sure I'm cut out for fiction, but I've always wanted the experience of writing a novel. And I have the idea and groundwork laid out to make it happen.
The obstacles to finding large blocks of time to devote to fiction writing over the last three years have been considerable: two tough pregnancies, two babies, a new blog and business and lots of travel. Oh, and procrastination and fear. Lots of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. What if the book is terrible? What if the book is actually good and then I have to find a publisher and do a book tour and interviews? Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself...
There are always excuses, especially in this phase of life. November is about throwing those excuses out the window—letting the laundry pile up, losing more sleep than usual, imbibing too much coffee and wine—and writing intensely for a concentrated period of time.
To prepare, I've spent the month of October frantically working on all the projects I would normally take on in November, including writing blogs, designing holiday cards, planning Cricket's birthday party, editing client photos and on and on. I'm also sifting through research, re-reading relevant books and learning new software to help me better organize the entire process of creating a novel.
This Friday, November 1, I will embark on the small task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days—that’s an average of 1,700 words a day. Maybe 1,700 words doesn't sound too tough for a day's work—I’m a writer after all. But we'll all get sick about 10 times in those 30 days, Jeff will travel, we'll host birthday parties and Thanksgiving, and I'll get maybe an hour out of 24 to myself...Life will keep moving at a crazy pace.
But I'm putting those excuses aside, accepting that this draft will be rushed and awful and confused. That's what first drafts are all about. It's officially time to write a novel. Anyone want to join me?
(P.S. My sister, Erin, successfully wrote a 50,000-word novel draft last November and inspired me to give this strategy a try. Thanks, Er!)
Above: One portion of the novel—I think—is set on a ranch here in the Blue River Valley, at the foot of the Gore Range in Colorado. This image is available here as a print, framed art, stretched canvas, stationery, pillow, tote bag or iPhone/iPod/iPad/laptop case or skin.
Click here to visit my nature photography shop.
Ten minutes after clearing security on our recent trip home from Minneapolis, we were milling around the airport when a young woman stopped us.
"Excuse me," she said. “I just have to tell you that you are the most efficient parents I have ever seen go through security. You’re such a great team! And the kids were so cooperative."
We laughed, thanked her and casually continued on our way. But for a family who travels somewhere between fairly often and way too much, this compliment felt like winning a gold medal!
I had been thinking of writing a post about flying with young kids for a while, and my newly minted gold medal (whether deserved or not) gave me the confidence to do it. When friends ask for advice on the matter, I feel like I could actually give 35,000 pieces of advice—one for each foot of altitude. The truth is that flying with young kids is difficult and stressful and makes me want to vomit with anticipation, but I always find it worth the hassle when we touchdown with an adventure awaiting us.
Our list of preparations and carry-on items changes constantly as the girls leave one stage and enter another, but here is a boiled down list of general things to remember.
Book wisely: You don't typically have to buy a seat for a child under 2. That said, you need to decide whether you're comfortable holding a child instead of belting her in or whether that child is too squirmy to sit on your lap for five hours. We started booking an extra seat around 18 to 21 months depending on the length of the flight.
Some aircrafts only have an extra air mask for a lap child on one side of the plane. You must have an extra air mask, but you may not be able to determine when booking where that mask is located. The only person who will definitely know is the lead flight attendant. Several times we were seated without an air mask and had to move, but only because we knew to ask. (If you have one adult on each side of the aisle and plan to pass the child back and forth, be sure to ask if there is a mask on each side.)
We’ve been flying Southwest Airlines a lot lately. Southwest allows families to board between the A and B groups, so you don't have to worry about checking in exactly 24 hours in advance. Plus you can check some luggage for free.
If you have the option, sit near the front of the plane, so you can make a quick escape after landing when the kids are falling apart.
Make a list and check it twice: The moment you try to leave for the airport, everyone begins to fuss and squirm and needs to go potty and is nervous you’re going to leave without them. In our phase of life, we would never make it out the door with the things we need if we didn't make a list. Enough said.
Prove it: Bring your kids’ birth certificates. Some airlines require birth certificates for lap children to prove they’re under 2 years. For infants, you may also need to show they’re older than 5-6 weeks. Southwest always asks us for a birth certificate for a lap child; sometimes agents from other airlines just look to make sure the child isn’t obviously over 2. Either way, I’ve learned to bring birth certificates for both kids in case any questions arise.
Assume the worst: Okay, okay, you can't plan for every scenario, but you should carry on the supplies you need for several hours of delay (and possibly essentials for a night in a random place if you're connecting). Someone once told me to bring six times as many diapers as I thought we would need, and that's what I've always done. Diapers are nearly impossible to find in an airport. Bring several changes of clothes for puking and diaper blow-outs.
Bring drugs. I always carry these supplies for the kids: Tylenol, ibuprofen, thermometer, (and for my daughter with a peanut allergy: EpiPens and Benadryl). I kid you not, there is something about flying that makes viruses flourish into horrendous fevers and ears to become instantaneously infected. It’s like clockwork. On our last flight, Nora seemed healthy on take-off and was lethargic with fever by the time we landed an hour and a half later. So bring what you need to avoid an emergency landing.
Don't sedate: In our experience, young toddlers are the toughest age to travel with because they're all over the place, may not nap on the plane like an infant and don't yet have the attention span to watch movies or play games. On our last flight, one mom told me the flight attendant suggested she drug her toddler with Benadryl next time. Are you kidding me? DON'T. DO. IT. Benadryl works differently on young kids than it does on adults and can actually make them hyper, or exhausted and cranky but unable to sleep. I've seen it firsthand—not while flying, thankfully—and it's not pretty. It would be more disastrous to have a drug-hyper child on a plane than a regular-hyper one.
Plan for the awkward: One of the first hurdles at the airport is actually getting inside. Have you ever tried to carry multiple awkward car seats and a family’s-worth of luggage through miles of parking garage? It’s not fun. But have you noticed there are always guys standing around the curb and the baggage carousel with carts just waiting to help you check in or haul your luggage to the car when you land? (If they aren't there, you can go to the information desk and have them paged.) Our recent routine is for Jeff to drop me off with the girls, luggage and car seats. Either someone checks us in at curbside or a guy with a cart brings all our stuff in and helps me get checked in while Jeff parks the car. When we land, we find a guy at baggage claim to help us out to the car. Just keep some cash on you for tips.
Unless your kids are old enough to walk 50 miles and carry their own luggage, consider bringing a stroller. You can check it at the gate (even a double stroller) and it will be returned to you on the jet way when you deplane.
All (or most) airlines check car seats at no charge, so don’t feel like you need to lug them through the airport. Whether Pack ‘n Plays are free can be up to the discretion of the person checking you in. We’ve never had to pay to check one, but some agents aren’t so kind.
Organize for security: We all know the security line is a drag, but it’s not so bad if you’re organized. The rules are always changing, though one beautiful innovation occurred after Nora was born: you can go walk through security with an infant in a carrier (like an Ergo, not a car seat) without having to remove the baby and put the carrier through the x-ray machine. They’ll probably run the wand over you, but who cares? The baby stays asleep.
The stroller is another situation. Don’t pack the stroller full of essentials and expect to wheel it through, kids and all. You’ll need to remove everything from the stroller and either fold it up or, if it’s too large to fit through the x-ray machine, send it through the wheelchair gate to be poked and prodded. (You’ll have to take the kids out either way.) So clean out your stroller before you get to the airport.
You can bring bottles or cups of milk, formula or other liquids for your kids, which will be tested for explosives. It will take some extra time to get through security, but I’ve been amazed how helpful most security personnel and fellow travelers are when you’re struggling through with a baby or two, especially if you’re traveling without another adult. (And don’t forget to have your own liquids handy to pull out of your bag.)
Bribe shamelessly: No normal rules apply on the plane. Treats, books, games, toys and movies should be endless. Endless, people! We often buy a few new books and movies for the plane but read or watch them once or twice before the flight so the girls are excited about them. (Sometimes a brand new book isn’t popular until they’re familiar with it.) Don’t forget there will be at least around 15 minutes during take-off and landing when you’ll have to turn off electronic devices, so don’t just count on movies and games.
Protect the ears: Kids can have trouble equalizing their ears during take-off and landing, which leads to screaming and more screaming. Try to have them drink something on the way up and down; swallowing can help relieve the pressure.
Food allergies: If your children have severe food allergies, consider bringing all the food they'll need in case you can't find safe food at the airport. The last thing you want to do is feed them something questionable before you hop on the plane. We have a peanut allergy in our family, and airports are packed with snacks processed with nuts. I try to make a special treat I know will distract them for a few minutes. I also bring enough regular, nut-free food to get us through a long delay if need be. (And I have the EpiPens and Benadryl handy, as always.)
Southwest normally serves peanuts, but if you tell them at check-in they will serve something else and make an announcement to notify the passengers. You can also request they wipe down the seats and tray tables in case the previous passengers were eating nuts. (You should do this yourself if you they don’t offer.) Some airlines are less accommodating, but it’s always worth asking.
If you’re breastfeeding: You may not be used to breastfeeding in public, but too bad for the middle-aged businessman sitting next to you. It’s way easier to breastfeed on the plane than to carry bottles or mix formula. If you're breastfeeding, bring plenty of water since the flight attendants may not be able to provide it for you if the flight is turbulent. You'll be more thirsty than usual (did you think it was possible?), because the air is dry at altitude.
Run for it: Most flights we’ve taken with the girls have gone much better than anticipated. But if things start to go downhill, keep this in mind: You are not going to see your fellow passengers ever again. When you land, collect your kids and belongings and run for it. You made it, so don’t look back!
(iPhone photos. Top: Nevada fly-over. Bottom: Airport layover.)
Planning your next adventure? Click here for some ideas.
Three years ago, I was honored to be asked to speak at my high school’s Cum Laude Society induction ceremony the night before graduation. Since it’s that time of year again, I thought it would be fun to share with you a slightly abridged version of the advice I gave to the graduates. Here goes:
One night, [now] 10 years ago, I sat alone in my tent staring at a paper packet covered in cartoon worms and wondering whether I would survive the night. The front of the packet contained no words. Just yellow, orange and blue worms that seemed to wriggle right off the paper. I emptied the packet’s contents—what I had been assured was anti-parasite powder—into my water bottle and shook it until the particles dissolved. After a few deep breaths, I gulped down the mixture, which tasted suspiciously like Tang.
I was in the middle of a two-month stint as a field research assistant in remote Madagascar studying primate behavior, and had managed to pick up some sort of stomach parasite that was about ready to finish me off. The nearest hospital was a three-day trek by car over washed-out dirt roads. But we had no car. Or any mode of communication with the world outside the nature reserve where we were living. So I just curled up in my sleeping bag to fend off the falling temperatures and lay listening to the growing sounds of night in the spiny desert.
As I fell asleep, all I could think was: “What the hell am I doing here?”
Upon beginning the field work, I figured out quickly that lying on my back under trees that spew human-blinding sap to observe lemurs—the least evolved of all primates—forage and groom, hardly resembled the romantic Jane Goodall-esque experience I had hoped for. Neither did scouring the forest floor to collect lemur fecal samples for hormone testing.
I decided I could now safely check primatology off my list of potential careers.
Did that make this entire adventure—or misadventure—a massive, reckless mistake? After all, I had been reduced to entrusting my life to the Malagasy version of Tang and still had no career path on the horizon. And if I died out here in the middle of nowhere, my parents would kill me!
As it turned out, the Miracle Tang worked. I survived the night and made it home a month later. And, after losing 15 pounds during the trip, I was relieved to be back in a land of clean water, electricity and properly labeled anti-parasite medications.
I also began to realize that the experience was far from a misstep off the path to a fulfilling career and an exciting life. It was the path—or a segment of the path, anyway.
What I gained from the Madagascar experience far outweighed what I originally thought the opportunity could offer me.
Because when I was not studying lemurs, I was playing with the village children, taking thousands of photographs and keeping a journal on my observations of life in a developing country where children in remote areas never even get the opportunity to learn the language of education or business (in this case French), where the infant mortality rate is more than 10 times that in the U.S. and where endemic plants and animals are tragically and rapidly being destroyed.
When I returned to school that fall, I put together a photo exhibit juxtaposing pictures of Madagascar’s children with the broken landscapes they will one day inherit, hoping to elicit from the audience the same question with which I was struggling: What will be left for these children?
Seeing the lack of public health services where I had lived further drew me to the field of public health. And I couldn’t stop writing about what I had witnessed, if only to organize the thoughts that haunted my mind every time I ate a meal that did not consist of rice and beans, or took a shower that did not come from a 2-gallon plastic bag filled with water I had drawn from a well and laid out to warm in the sun.
Little by little, the lessons I gathered from what I thought was a random summer in Madagascar seemed to weave together a picture of my future that I hadn’t seen clearly before. I realized my interests in writing, photography, health, environment, science and international development were not disparate after all. I did not have to follow a prescribed path deeply into one field at the expense of my passion for the others. I was not flailing, as I had felt I was for most of college! All it took was a few parasites and a couple groups of lemurs to show me that I really was moving forward, on my own path.
Following these varied interests led me to: work in the fields of public health and international development; write for numerous publications; intern at National Geographic and other magazines and newspapers; create photographic documentaries, travel extensively, earn a master’s degree in medical journalism and try my hand at freelance writing and photography.
I cringe to think what I might be doing now if I had never taken a risk and ventured to Madagascar or to the many other places and jobs I’ve landed along the way. If I had stuck to a path that was safer, one where I seized opportunities only if I knew exactly where they would lead, I would be lost in someone else’s world right now.
As you prepare to graduate, you may or may not have given much thought to your career path. Regardless, you will probably feel pressured at some point, by your peers, your parents, your professors or your employers to head in a direction that is of their liking, and which may be quite far from yours. You may be tempted by the careers that many consider the most prestigious. And those careers can be great options for people who are passionate about them.
But open your eyes to the limitless possibilities that await you. You owe it to yourself and the world in which you live to find something—or always keep searching for it if it eludes you—that you love, that you are good at and that will give you the opportunity to contribute in some way to the society in which you live.
As you head off to college, your world will broaden. You will encounter courses on topics of which you’ve never heard. You will meet professors and visiting lecturers who are the most accomplished researchers or practitioners in their fields. You will befriend students with life experiences very different from your own, and from whom you will learn quite a bit.
The opportunities will be endless. But they may also take more effort to find—both inside and outside the scope of your university—and to whittle down to manageable proportions. They can be overwhelming.
So here are a few tips that might help you discover your own path—one that balances career and life and brings in an income. (Yes, you have to do something that will get you off your parents’ payroll.)
First, be adventurous. Seek out and try new things even when you don’t know where they’ll lead you —whether they are unusual jobs or research opportunities, travel that might be less than comfortable or even dates with people who aren’t your perfect match on paper. Trial and error is your best friend.
Second, if you haven’t already, learn to communicate well. And I’m not talking about texting. A strong communicator can talk or write her way to success in any field. You could be a world-class engineer, but it will still be difficult to land your dream job without a convincing cover letter or, in the very least, an introductory email that involves proper punctuation, the word “you” spelled “y-o-u” instead of just “u” and a distinct lack of smiley faces. If you develop a treatment for a life-threatening disease but can’t for the life of you put together a journal article or presentation that demonstrates the strength of your trials, you’re out of luck. And so is the rest of the world. So make sure you can write and speak persuasively.
Third, speaking of journals, please learn how to read and evaluate—even in a basic sense—a scientific journal article. I don’t care if you plan to be an English major or if you took a vow of scientific celibacy following your AP biology exam. In the age of infotainment, don’t take anyone’s word for anything. You have easier access to information than any previous generation, so learn how to use it well. Go straight to the source and figure out how to devour it to become a more informed citizen.
Fourth, learn to listen to the other point of view—with grace. (I’m still struggling with this one.) Very few things in life are clear-cut, and the grey zone is what makes life interesting. You will open many more doors for yourself if you can be sympathetic and practical than if you are simply arrogant.
Fifth, get out of your bubble—whatever your personal bubble may be. There is always more of the world to soak in and try to understand. I can’t encourage you enough to study abroad and stay with a foreign family. Learn another language. Volunteer on the opposite side of town from where you grew up. Or take a class that sounds intriguing even if you might not earn an “A.”
Sixth, find balance between work and play. Until now, you have had a fairly regimented schedule of required courses and sports practices and family obligations. Now it’s pretty much up to you. And you will struggle for the rest of your life to find the proper balance of your time. Sometimes you will fail and pay the consequences, but always try to regain that balance—it’s worth it, especially once you have a family.
And lastly, develop your powers of discernment. Learn to distinguish what is right for you—based on your own strengths, interests and experiences—from the path that is simply popular or expected.
High school, I hope, has prepared you well for the future of your choosing. But let the process be one of trial and error. Seek out all types of adventures and learn from them. Learn what you enjoy learning. Learn how you enjoy spending your day. Learn the level of stress that prods you into productivity but keeps you from becoming institutionalized. And learn what you dream of for your future family, so you can find the balance to realize those dreams.
You don’t have to be fighting parasites in the middle of Madagascar to find your path. In fact, your parents would probably appreciate if your path were a little tamer. But don’t sell yourself short. You have already demonstrated in high school that you are prepared to take the world by storm. So do just that.
The world awaits you. Congratulations!
The world feels off-kilter right now; my family and I are trying to re-orient after losing my beloved grandpa, John Bean, last week. It's difficult to imagine how we'll get along without him. He lived 93 years and made the most of each one. (If you need some inspiration to get out and make a difference in your community, just check out his obituary.) Because of his service during World War II, it seems fitting to write about him on this Memorial Day.
My heart swelled as I read several comments on his obituary guest book calling him "the greatest of the Greatest Generation." Of course I've always thought of my grandparents that way, but it makes me proud to see that others felt the same.
Among the many roles he assumed throughout his life, Grandpa was first and foremost a husband, father and pilot. He was endlessly generous. He taught us to live deliberately and by the highest moral standards. He also taught us that true love really can last a lifetime. (He leaves behind my grandma, his bride of 71 years.) Just this Mother's Day, I posted a 1958 photo he took of Grandma, whom he called "the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."
Grandpa was passionate about cameras and, for my 7th birthday, gave me my first one. That gift shifted my perspective of the world; since then my favorite view has been from behind the lens. Over the next 20 years, he often passed along camera gear to me as it became apparent that I'd also caught the photography bug. (Last year I wrote here about the Leica collection he gave me.) In this and many other ways, his influence on my life has been profound.
Grandpa was blessed to have a comfortable end, surrounded by his family. As he set an example for us in the way he lived, he also set one in dying with grace. He was calm, at peace, accepting.
Nora and I flew to Florida last week for Grandpa's memorial service. The evening after the service, we wandered down to the beach with my mom, sister and niece. We have years—decades, really—of memories on that beach from our annual visits to my grandparents. It just happened that we caught the sun setting, injecting a golden lining into the massive, ink-blue storm clouds that were rolling in.
As a pilot, Grandpa's heart belonged to sky. Now the rest of him does, too, and it felt like he was sending a final farewell. Thank you, Grandpa, for being the greatest of the greatest. I love you!
Is that a movie star? Nope. It's a 1958 photo of the ever-stunning Ruth Leslie Bean, my grandma. It is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photos my grandpa, John Bean, has taken of Grandma over their 71 years of marriage. He recently told my mom he takes so many photos of Grandma because she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. (I'm tearing up just repeating those words.)
My post last year about Grandma remains one of my most viewed. Since today is Mother's Day, and I've always thought of Grandma as "the ultimate mom," as a mother to six, grandmother to 16 and great-grandmother to 27, I thought today would be a meaningful time to share a few more of her thoughts on motherhood.
Four and a half years ago, when I was newly married and not yet a mom, I got the seedling of an idea to interview my grandmothers and mother about their expectations and perceptions of motherhood. I wasn't sure what I would do with the interviews—and I'm still not—and have only completed two of the three—it turns out babies make it difficult to conduct interviews, but I'll be calling soon, Grandma Connors! At some point I will finish that last interview and pull them together into something cohesive.
In the meantime, let's rewind four and a half years to when Grandma Bean was a mere 87 years old. Here are a few notes from her interview.
I worried I had missed the chance to talk to Grandma about motherhood. Over the last few years, her short-term memory had deteriorated, and signs were emerging that she was beginning to struggle with her long-term memory, too. I pulled Mom aside and asked whether she thought Grandma could still speak to her expectations of motherhood and what it means to be a mother. Mom said she thought the topic was so close to Grandma's heart that she would still be able to talk about it.
The mercury was hovering in the mid-teens with a wind chill well below zero as Mom and I drove to Grandma and Grandpa's apartment. Gusting snow blanketed the rush hour traffic—a typical Minnesota evening. Grandma was wearing her Coach sneakers. We sat on the sofas they've had as long as I can remember, which were recently recovered in a powder blue floral pattern.
Grandpa sat with us and chimed in when he could. Mom helped spur Grandma to talk about things she knew were important to her.
Grandma did speak fluently. In fact, for the first time in several years, I felt like my old Grandma was back. Something inside her came alive as she spoke of her children and the values she hoped she instilled in them. To be good. To make the world a bit better. To love one another.
I expect it will become more and more difficult to draw that part of her out, but what a gift today was for me. What a gift to see her glow when she spoke of the dearest subject of her life: motherhood.
Here are a few of my favorite short excerpts from the interview.
JCS: What were your expectations going into motherhood?
RLB: I guess I was overwhelmed with love for my children. My expectation was that, of course, we would always love our children and that we hoped they would forgive us for our mistakes as we were raising them. But I just expected that everything was going to go perfectly, and it did. [Laugh]
JCS: What do you owe your children?
RLB: Love. Unconditional love. That’s the first thing. You owe them a sense of stability. I think you owe them an example. You are there example. And, therefore, you have an obligation to be a decent person.
JCS: How much of your energy do you owe your children?
RLB: It’s a complicated question.
JBB (Grandpa): Well, you gave them all your energy. That’s why you’re so tired now!
RLB: I gave them all my energy! Well, I think when they’re little you owe all your energy to them.
JCS: Is there anything else you want to add about being a mom? How important has it been in your life?
RLB: [Laugh] How important has it been? It’s been my life.
Who could put it better? Happy Mother's Day to you and yours!
I planned to post a batch of photos today from our trip to Florida last week, but instead I'm writing a memorial to our dear old buddy Austin, our nearly 12-year-old black lab/shepherd who died unexpectedly yesterday morning.
(Above: One of my favorite photos of all time. Jeff and Austin: A guy and his dog.)
He died peacefully in the care of his vet, but it happened so fast that we were still out of town. I've spent the last 36 hours fixated on the fact that we didn't even know he was sick (it was cancer—everywhere) and that we didn't make it home in time to say goodbye. And, of course, I feel guilty that the dogs went from being our babies to being second-class citizens once our girls arrived on the scene. So I'm trying to pick myself up by the boot straps this afternoon and remember all the happy times we had together.
Austin became Jeff's sidekick at 6 weeks, when Jeff came across some people who were giving away a litter of abandoned puppies they'd found. Jeff, who had just graduated from college, took one look at Austin and knew they were meant for each other. Who could resist this tiny guy?
Austin came into my life more than six years ago when I met Jeff in grad school. I got my own puppy, Finn, that fall. Austin and Finn quickly became best friends and then brothers. And Austin became just as much mine as he was Jeff's.
"The boys," as we referred to them, played and romped and chased and barked and got into lots and lots of mischief together over the years. They road tripped with us to Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Colorado, many beaches in North Carolina and just about everywhere in between. Some of my favorite memories with Austin include hiking and snowshoeing with him through the Colorado Rockies.
I promise the boys are just playing around here. They were such nut jobs together!
Doesn't he look just like Ferdinand the bull under the tree?
Our 2009 Christmas card photo.
One of Nora's first words was "dog." She would crawl over to the door, pull up and watch Austin and Finn playing outside while telling them: "Dog. Dog. Dog."
I'll never forget Austin's companionship while I was pregnant and incapacitated by nausea and vomiting. He was always at my side while I lay on the couch too weak and sick to get up. And when I managed to run to the bathroom to throw up, he would follow to check on me, with great concern.
He was terrified of thunderstorms and once became so panicked when a tornado came through town that he climbed behind the toilet to hide and got stuck.
He barked all the time, and we were always yelling at him to be quiet. Now the house is too quiet.
Cricket loved taking him for walks. Jeff would walk ahead with Austin while I pushed the double stroller. Cricket would watch Austin investigating things and comment on whatever he did. It was her lucky day if she got to watch him poop!
Jeff has so many fond memories of Austin from the years before I knew them, but I could never do those stories justice. Let's just say they got into plenty of trouble together.
Here's to you, Austie Bear! Thank you for being our best buddy for 12 years. We love you to no end and will miss you every day.
We are forever seeking treasures on our morning walks. We don't always know what we’re searching for, but we always know when we've found it—a grazing deer, an interesting pinecone, a hawk on the hunt. One morning this fall, we came across the heart-shaped leaf with a heart-shaped hole above. Cricket gingerly held it against her stroller blanket as I took a photo, so we could keep admiring it later.
The sweet memory of Cricket awed by this unique leaf sprang up when we were thinking of making Valentines for the girls to send to their cousins. I ended up designing this flip card and wanted to share it with you, too.
Now back to the theme of searching...Every once in a while I bust out with some unsolicited advice for friends who have yet to find their soul mates. The advice often follows a similar format: "Make sure to marry someone who will still love you after he/she sees (fill in the blank) happen to you." (The delivery room is a weird place, people.) Or: "Make sure the person you marry is the one you want holding your hand when you experience (fill in the blank with something awful or amazing)."
I'm sure my words of wisdom are always very helpful and thoroughly appreciated.
Last week, I experienced another scenario to add to my advice list: Make sure the person you marry is the one you want standing beside you, propping you up as you watch a nurse carry your little one down the seemingly endless hallway to the operating room. (When I looked up at Jeff and knew we were feeling the exact same fear and love for our daughter in that moment, it only confirmed for the millionth time that I had chosen right. And so had he.)
Happy Valentine's Day to those still searching and to those whose search is very much over!
(Last year on this day, I wrote about my love letter to my family.)
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.