Exchanging holiday cards is one of my favorite parts of December. As a lifestyle photographer, I always aim to take portraits that show the girls authentically in a place that has been a special part of our lives that year. We took these photos on the stone wall we had built in the front yard with rocks from our property. "Seek wonder" felt like the perfect wish for the year, since my underlying goal as a parent and home educator is not to extinguish the girls' natural sense of wonder with the drudgery of formal education, but to provide natural opportunities for it to continue to grow.
I hope you'll enjoy the card and outtakes. Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Front of card:
Back of card:
Now for the outtakes. The first one below is probably my favorite, though it's hard to say. It looks like Piper is placing a spell on her sisters, when actually she is throwing pine straw all over them in an effort to foil my attempts at capturing one civilized photo. (Portraits with 2-year-olds are always a trip, aren't they?)
When our dear friend, Alice, was moving out of the area years ago, she gifted us with her childhood desk. Her wood-working aunt had made it for her, and she was ready to pass it along for another child to love. Cricket became the recipient of the desk when we moved into this house three years ago.
The desk was due for a refinishing, and it seemed like a fun birthday present for Cricket to make the project happen this month. She chose this marigold spray paint to match a sunflower photo from a favorite hiking trail in Colorado that hangs on another wall in her room.
I surprised her with these Anthropologie knobs.
To prepare the desk and chair for spraying, I just did a quick sanding. I wanted to preserve some of the wood grain and dents to retain the history and vintage feel, so I didn't worry about smoothing the surfaces or spraying more than a few coats of paint. (I escaped without de-glossing, because the finish was so worn.)
Cricket couldn't be happier with how it turned out. I hope she'll be able to pass it down to her kids one day.
(Warning: The following not-family-friendly satirical letter does not fit the usual tenor of my blog, but desperate times call for desperate, late-night therapeutic writing measures.)
Dear Boys Who Behave Badly,
It is with great pride we write to you on this joyous, historic day to celebrate the reauthorization of the Boys-Who-Behave-Badly-Towards-Women-Shall-Face-No-Consequences Act (first established at the dawn of time).
In November 2016, you went loyally forth to the polls and voted with all your masculine vigor to remind our nation that even in this century, admitting to and bragging about sexually assaulting women WILL NOT disqualify a man from the highest office in the land.
We would like to express our gratitude to you (and, ironically and confusingly, to college-educated white women) for reaffirming this God-given truth, which bestowed upon us the confidence to do what we did today.
Always remember: WE ARE THE VICTIMS. As the esteemed Lindsey Graham so thoughtfully said, "I keep telling my colleagues, if this is the new normal, God help us all.” WE ARE THE VICTIMS. We refuse to let our bad behavior haunt us.
We are God’s gift to women (you may be more familiar with the terms “pussies” or “wombs” in reference to these insubordinate creatures), and we will continue to dominate them forevermore.
We will fight against honesty. We will shame and mock accusers. We will use Bill Clinton’s sexual missteps to justify our own for perpetuity.
We will denounce all the preschool and elementary school teachers out there telling kids such shameless lies as, “You can’t blame someone else for your own bad behavior,” and “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” And we will stand firmly against the most laughable, disrespectful lie of all, that “No means no.”
As one venerable professor wrote this week, “If someone did not commit sexual assault in high school, then he is not a member of the male sex.” Boys will be boys—FOREVER! You know these alternative truths to be self-evident.
We say unto you: be vigilant; be belligerent; remain staunchly condescending; cling to ignorance; do not give up on incompetence; hold fast to amorality. And, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, should you ever accept the liberal conspiracy messaging that you need to keep your dick in your pants when it is unwanted. Your dick shall goeth wherever it desireth, whenever it desireth, for eternity. Amen.
We leave you now with the eloquent words of our courageous leader—words to sear into our memories, words to live by, words that bear witness to the beauty of our God-sanctioned entitlement: “I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Signed with sweet relief and a healthy dose of toxic masculinity (while glancing over our shoulders, hoping our own skeletons won’t emerge from the closet—but prepared to grab ‘em by the pussy if they do),
Hurricane Florence had descended on us overnight. The wind was gusting, and the rain had just begun. The lights were flickering as I stood in the kitchen. My mom had been worried about us, so I assumed when she called around noon she was just checking in on the weather. But her voice was shaky, which meant she had bad news. My heart sank. As she told me my grandma, Jane Connors, had passed away that morning, the power went out.
Darkness. Silence—except for the three kids buzzing around me, wondering why I was crying.
As I hung up, the fabric sheers on the table caught my eye in the dim kitchen—a gift from Grandma. I had been using them to cut yarn for a weaving I was working on when my mom called.
My eyes tracked around the room. Next to the sink sat my favorite spatula, used that morning to fry eggs—a thrifted gift from Grandma for my first apartment. Next to the spatula, a mixing bowl—my favorite and another thrifted find from Grandma.
I thought of all the items tucked inside the cabinets from Grandma: cake pans; sauce pans; plates; bowls; serving spoons; a wooden recipe box overflowing with recipes in Grandma’s handwriting, crucial parts underlined in red; illustrated instructions on how to properly cut onion and pepper; oven mitts; and on and on. I was literally surrounded by Grandma.
We knew Grandma was living on borrowed time after a series of terrifying medical episodes that began five years ago, which we expected to end her life. Perhaps because she kept on living and sewing and cooking and defying expectations and prognoses, her passing seemed almost surprising. And because she was my last living grandparent, her death feels compounded, as if the other three have left us all over again. (How long does it take to process the passing of a generation?)
It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I began to understood what Grandma taught me over the years, and only now am I starting to stitch those gifts together into a few discernable lessons.
Grandma was born in 1931, a child of the Great Depression. Her sense of frugality and practicality shaped her, how she functioned in the world, and how she raised her family. She was a mother, a thrifter, a seamstress, a cook, a baker, a painter. And she was meticulous in each and every endeavor.
One year, my friend and I decided we wanted to learn how to sew dresses for ourselves. So Grandma spent several summer days teaching us to make sheath dresses, despite the fact that my friend and I were rather helpless behind the sewing machine. (“Measure twice, cut once!”) Later she helped me make a lavender silk wrap to accessorize an outfit for a school dance. I’m no master seamstress and can’t usually remember where to find the power switch on my sewing machine, but every once in a while, I whip up a little something (usually a Halloween costume for the girls) using the skills Grandma taught me.
Another summer, Grandma offered my sisters and me cake-decorating lessons and then outfitted us with industrial-level decorating supplies for Christmas. I don’t make a huge hoopla over my girls’ birthdays, but because of the lessons Grandma gave me, I’ve made a tradition of decorating an intricate cake for each celebration. It’s something special and unique I can do for them without going over the top.
Yet another summer, I came home from a trip to India with piles of fabric and ribbon. Despite her horror at how impractical and slippery the silken fabric was (only cotton is practical, people!), Grandma helped me make a duvet with matching pillow cases that I still treasure today. And I have grown as a person enough by now to admit she was right; if you make a duvet out of slippery fabric, it will always be slipping off the bed.
Through these projects and others, I witnessed Grandma’s astute attention to detail, her single-minded focus when working on a project, and her unwillingness to pay for something she knew she could do better herself with hard work and a bit of elbow grease. Either through her genes or her influence, she shared these traits with me, much to my luck.
In addition to being deeply practical, Grandma was deeply empathetic. It was the way she mixed these two characteristics that had, perhaps, the greatest influence on me.
I didn’t think of Grandma as an emotional person in the sense that she wasn’t the kind of person whose lap I’d climb into for snuggling. I remember noting that at Grandpa’s funeral 20 years ago, when the rest of us had devolved into tears, Grandma sat dry eyed, then bustled home and cooked a meal for all the attendees, because that’s how she knew to honor someone; that’s how she knew to comfort the rest of us.
She felt deeply the pain of others—sometimes on a nearly frantic level—and her aid for them came not in emotional ways but in practical ones, often through food or in items she could sew to make them more comfortable.
She had a particular heart for women and children, for the poor and the sick. She knew how hard parenting was. She knew how devastating it was to lose a baby. She knew what it meant to struggle financially. She could sympathize in these ways.
But perhaps even more impressively, Grandma could empathize. She didn’t have to have a spouse walk out on her to imagine how difficult life would be raising kids without a partner. She didn’t have to have a child gunned down to imagine the pain and trauma experienced by the families of Sandy Hook. In a world that feels increasingly and disturbingly devoid of empathy, Grandma had this skill in droves.
You could find her in the kitchen testing recipes, which, once perfected, she would copy onto notecards and pass out to family and friends. She was a newshound, forever cutting out and sending New York Times articles to interested parties. She sewed indestructible oven mitts to protect us from burns and—famous in our family lore—neon orange fleece hoods to protect us from hypothermia should our cars break down on a winter day in Minnesota. She prayed for her family and for strangers throughout daily life and disaster. She identified, collected, or made all the crucial baby items we needed to make the tough transition to parenthood that much smoother.
Grandma devoted her life to the thankless task of caring for others in the ways she knew how. You wouldn’t find her on the volunteer roster of a nonprofit. She didn’t have a college degree or a lengthy professional resume. But she was relentless in her own methods of caring.
Grandma showed me that two of the most important things we can do in this life are to empathize with other people—to feel their pain as our own whether we’ve shared their experiences or not—and to use our own unique gifts to try to make their lives a little better.
During the hurricane, we had pulled a mattress into the living room, so the girls could sleep on the first floor in case a tree fell on the roof. The wind and rain had been so loud the night after Grandma died that we slept fitfully. At one point Nora woke up, scared because she thought it sounded like there was someone walking on the roof.
The next morning, Cricket and Nora were snuggling on the mattress and from the kitchen I overhead Cricket say, “Nora, remember how you said you heard someone walking on the roof last night?” Well I think it was Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa coming down to say goodbye.”
Nora thought a moment and responded happily, “Yeah, me too.”
(Photo credits unknown. The last photo might be deceiving; Grandma went on to raise six children.)
Remember that time long ago (in May) when Design Mom featured my home tour? I'm still pinching myself in disbelief that it ever happened. And I'm still getting a lot of questions about the frames lining our upstairs hallway from one of the photos that appeared in the post.
So I'm going to let you in on a little secret, which isn't actually a secret if you know me: I'm a cheapskate. I don't care about brands. I don't buy an expensive version of something when I can buy an inexpensive version. And I don't mind rolling up my sleeves and making something if it means it will fit my budget now instead of two years from now.
This long hallway wall sat empty for a long time before I finally decided what to do with it. It doesn't get a lot of light, so I knew the art needed to be bright and reflective. I also wanted a simple, sharp, clean feel that drew the eye down the hall to the colorful piece that local artist Jenn Potter painted for that space.
Eventually I decided small black and white prints with large white mats (plenty of negative space) checked off all my requirements. Designers often work in odd numbers, but I just couldn't figure out how to make the wall work with three or five frames, so I settled on four. (If you have a choice, go odd.) When I looked into custom framing four small prints with 24x36-inch mats, it was going to cost me in the neighborhood of $1,000.
No, ma'am. I frame way too much in a given year to spend $1,000 on one wall. So I headed to a hobby store and went to work trying to create the same look for a fraction of the cost. I ended up framing all four prints for around $120 total.
Here's how I did it.
Poster frames with thin black borders (24x36)—$12.99 each
White mat board for each frame at least 24x36 inches (uncut)—$7.99 each
Prints (11x14)—$5.00 each
Spray mount adhesive—$5.99
Scissors or crafting knife
Measuring tape or yard stick
I bought the inexpensive poster frames and uncut mat board at A.C. Moore (which doesn't list their inventory online). You can find similar supplies at other hobby stores, such as Michael's.
The mat board was larger than 24x36, so I carefully measured and cut the outer edges to size to fit the frames.
Instead of cutting windows in the mat board (which is difficult and frustrating without good supplies), I glued the photos on top of them. Guests to my home haven't noticed this shortcut, even upon close inspection! To do this, I measured and marked in pencil (and double and triple and quadruple checked) where I wanted to place the photos: 6.5 inches from the top and 6.5 inches from each side.
Next I set up a place to spray the adhesive on the backs of the photos (in a well-ventilated area), sprayed them, then placed the photos extremely carefully onto the mat board where I had marked. There is a lot of room for error here, so you may want to purchase an additional mat board in case you make a measuring or gluing mistake.
I assembled the frames. Normally I hang frames about two inches apart. But to continue the theme of negative space and keep the eye moving down the hallway, I spaced the frames 13 inches apart.
Voila. You've got yourself a series of art for a fraction of the cost of custom framing.
In other news, check out my new photography class!
“Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers”is an 85-page downloadable PDF packed with lessons and photo examples from my own portfolio.
Lately I've been frustrated trying to find a photography course for my elementary-aged kids that doesn't underestimate their abilities or introduce concepts at a high-school or college level. So this summer I sat down and wrote the intro photography course I wish I could have taken as a kid when I got my first camera at age 7.
I'm thrilled to share this course with you now. It's called: "Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers." You can purchase the 85-page downloadable PDF here. (Use code SNAP15 to get 15% off through 8/15/18.)
But first let me explain why this class should be an important feature of your curriculum.
HOW DOES PHOTOGRAPHY BENEFIT THE DEVELOPING MIND?
As a photographer and writer, I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to the joy and pain in others’ lives, to the beautiful and mundane in this world.
To quiet your body and mind, to observe what is in front of you, to learn how to find the thread of a story, to document it from a unique perspective, to transform it into something extraordinary—these are some of the most essential life skills we can teach our children.
Why? Because effective storytelling is what propels us through life. It doesn’t matter what particular careers we pursue; college essays, job applications, grant proposals, social media marketing—they all force us to weave engaging stories to convince our audience to feel a certain way.
Storytelling matters. While I hope your children grow to enjoy photography as an artistic expression, I’ll tell you right now: they don’t need to become professional photographers to benefit greatly from learning how to look closely, to document life, and to communicate more effectively. The basic photography skills your children will gain from working through this course are the building blocks of an artist, but they are also transferrable to other forms of storytelling the world will expect your children to master along the way.
Your children don’t have to wait to learn photography fundamentals until they can handle a high school or college photography course that requires thousands of dollars of equipment and the ability to understand the relationships between shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Meet them at their level and help them get started with this course. They can start building their foundational skills now.
Now for some details about the course.
Students will first familiarize themselves with the camera they'll be using, then learn some basics about light, composition, and perspective before moving on to experiment with a few genres of photography. Next they'll learn about storytelling through photography. They'll wrap up the course by creating their own photo series.
You do NOT need a fancy DSLR camera to take this course; you just need a mobile phone camera or a basic point-and-shoot.
You do NOT need photography experience to teach this course. (And even if you are a professional photographer, the course will help you break down concepts into digestible bits for your kids in ways you may not have considered.)
Ready to get started? You can purchase the course here. (Use code SNAP15 to get 15% off through 8/15/18.)
Questions? Jot me an email.
I may receive a small commission from the Amazon affiliated link on this page at no additional cost to you.
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.
Well my goal of posting our Around the World book lists shortly after we finished each unit fell by the wayside pretty quickly. I'm going to try to zip through them without much commentary and get as many posted as I can over the next few weeks before we start our new school year. We made it through all the continents during the 2017-2018 school year, so just send me a line if you're looking for a specific book list before I've posted it.
Identified and labeled Antarctica maps. Wrote stories about penguins. Visited penguins, sharks and other creatures at the Greensboro Science Center. Wrote and illustrated penguin fact sheets. Snow day fun (actually multiple snow days of fun): sledding, snow forts and snowballs. Studied explorers and their trials, successes and mishaps.
Learn about my intro photography curriculum
Documenting Your World Through Photography: An Introductory Course for Elementary and Middle Schoolers
More Around the World book lists
East Africa (Part I)
East Africa (Part II) and Central Africa
North Africa (Egypt)
I may receive a small commission from the Amazon affiliated link on this page at no additional cost to you.
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!
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.