Knives and Hearts


When two people decide to commit themselves to one another and spend the rest of their lives together, it introduces the interesting challenge of living together under the same roof. Every couple I know has a list of things they regularly disagree about, but have adopted different coping strategies. A popular approach is to ignore anything that seems trivial rather than deal with it. These are frequently the things that blow up when least expected.

The big, horrible blowouts that end relationships often happen only after a long accumulation of tiny steps of emotional separation–and it’s as often that “trivial” annoyances result in these tiny steps. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

The trick is to recognize when we’re disconnecting.

The other day, I was emptying the dishwasher. When I pulled out the silverware, I found amongst it my Zwilling J.H. Henckels top-of-the-line paring knife that I purchased at a time in my life when I had very little money. I chose to buy one really good knife instead of an entire set of cheap knives because I wanted something that would last a lifetime.

When my husband and I first started living together, we discovered we had two distinct beliefs about how to wash knives. I had been hand washing them for years. My husband flat out didn’t believe the dishwasher would damage a knife.

As such, for 18 years, I have been periodically annoyed that he puts good knives in the dishwasher. Our debate had always hinged on whether it is damaging to the knives or not. Eventually, I would decide I was being petty given that my husband not only puts dishes in the dishwasher, but he also cooks, does laundry, takes care of the cars, fixes things, etc. Who am I to complain that he puts my good knives in the dishwasher? Until it would suddenly annoy me again.

The other day was one of those days. But this time, for the first time in 18 years, it dawned on me that what annoyed me had nothing to do with whether the dishwasher damaged the knives or not. Rather, the annoyance came from feeling that the action was equivalent to my husband telling me I didn’t matter.

This time, when I asked him not to put my good knives in the dishwasher and he replied “What does it hurt?” my answer was, “Me. It hurts me.” The bottom line is that it’s important to me, petty or not, and it hurts my feelings that respecting something important to me isn’t worth the effort of hand washing a knife.

For the first time in 18 years, there was no debate about who was right. For the first time in 18 years, my husband understood why he shouldn’t put the knives in the dishwasher.

Seeing the look on his face the moment he realized he’d hurt my feelings made me fall in love all over again. It turns out talking about annoyance can be romantic.

Saint Patrick’s Day Dogs


Last weekend was full-on St. Patrick’s Day celebration time in Chattanooga. This, of course, included a parade. And what better way to celebrate that to dress up dogs in green costumes and walk them en masse in the parade?
Since I had a photography workshop scheduled on Action, I planned for us to meet in the park where the dogs would congregate so the group could practice getting shots of moving subjects. Well, some dogs were moving, anyway. Some were pretty content to sit around gazing at all the action.

I managed to grab a few shots of my own. Unfortunately, with daylight savings time having kicked in the weekend before, the sun was already glaringly bright by the time the dogs showed up at 10AM.

There was no green beer in the park and no drunken antics, but plenty of silly dogs performing tricks of their own creation. There was a silly mutt who preferred vertical motion over horizontal–he kept jumping straight into the air at his person, as if the excitement was too much for him.

A little too close to get the whole dog, but cracks me up none-the-less

A little too close to get the whole dog, but cracks me up none-the-less

Then there were the dogs meeting and greeting. Dogs greet one another differently than humans. Some start with a nose sniff. Nose-to-nose, they look like they are exchanging eskimo kisses. However, a dog in the face is really considered a breach of etiquette. Polite dogs approach from the side and start with a much less human-tolerated greeting by sniffing the opposite end of their new acquaintance.

Sometimes I imagine humans greeting like dogs. Looking, then looking away. Looking, then pretending to look at something else. Showing each other our sides. Approaching slowly, stopping to sniff the grass from time to time. Ultimately circling one another to sniff butts. That’s the part that just goes against the grain, isn’t it? But do you ever wonder if there was a time in human history when this was considered polite behavior?

I suppose it doesn’t matter–it’s not a behavior I advocate for humans. However, as humans, we really shouldn’t expect our dogs to greet the way we do. We put them into such stressful situations. Can you imagine being walked around in a collar and on a leash and being expected to greet strangers in the park but not in a way that’s considered polite by our fellow humans? Restrained, restricted, unable to escape and forced to face potential foes in this highly vulnerable position. Add to that a silly green costume.

It amazes me that the dog parade went as smoothly as it did. The occasional dog was walked away from the crowd when it became overexcited or encountered another dog it just couldn’t tolerate. But in general, dogs are so intent on pleasing their humans, they tolerate strange circumstances. Some even appeared to enjoy being dressed for the occasion.

It’s hard to find a better example of selflessness and tolerance that in our faithful furry friends–wouldn’t it be nice if we could follow that example?

Fall Creek Falls


Last weekend, while Pat was working, I made a random decision to get out for a hike after far too long a hiatus from the woods. Hiking and sanity are directly correlated. Without a regular dose of time in the woods, I find myself wound too tight and forgetting what’s really important in life.

We found ourselves driving up to Fall Creek Falls, a park NE of Chattanooga (of course, practically all of Tennessee is NE of Chattanooga) in one of the many beautiful parts of Tennessee–the Cumberland Plateau. Different from the Smokies, the Cumberland Plateau has amazing gorges that catch you by surprise–one moment you’re in the woods and the next you’re standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking an enormous “gulf.” Even driving into the Cumberland Plateau area is breath-taking. There were several times when I wanted to pull off the highway to get shots of rocky cliffs and mountains surrounding the freeway.

Tisen and I headed straight to Cane Creek Falls to start our adventure. I got to make good use of my polarizer given that it was about the worst lighting of the day. But, I had fun playing with shutter speeds and rapidly moving water. I can never decide if I like frozen droplets or smooth flows of water better.

We walked to Fall Creek Falls through the woods. As is often true at crowded parks, you don’t have to get more than a ½ a mile down the trail before the crowds disappear. I don’t know where everyone disappears to, exactly, but sometimes I suspect there is a black hole somewhere between the paved, accessible path and the “unimproved” trails that take a person more than a 10 minute walk to explore.

I’m not complaining. I’m happy to have to share the trail only with Tisen. We walk together well, thinking mostly about the next footstep and what birds we hear. Although Tisen may also think about squirrels and the dogs he smells evidence of along the way.

I was surprised to discover I am out of shape. I don’t know why this would surprise me, but I guess it’s hard to remember that being in shape is not a permanent state. I found myself breathless as we made our way up a steep hill from the bottom of the Cane Creek Falls to the top of a cliff that would eventually wind around and provide a nice view of Fall Creek Falls. Even Tisen was happy to slow down and rest from time to time.

The rhythm of foot falls and crunching leaves set to a chorus of birdsongs all in the setting of a 70+ degree day of sunshine made for good medicine. Tisen and I enjoyed the views and I enjoyed shooting, but the medicinal part of being in the woods is just that: being in the woods.

If fatigue is any way to judge to a hike, I’d say this one went pretty darn well.

Play

Last weekend, Pat hauled Tisen and me up to Signal Point park for a short walk to the overlook. I figured it was a good time to do some shooting.

The trouble with overlooks is the limited options for landscape shots. I’ve shot from the Signal Point overlook so many times that I’ve run out of landscape options. When the sky doesn’t do anything spectacular, it doesn’t help.

This time, I decided to play a bit. I’ve decided that’s what I need more of: play. Not just for photography, but for life in general. When I say “play,” I don’t mean playing structured games with rules that one applies so that one “wins.” That’s not play. That’s competition.

What I mean by “play” harkens back to the feeling of getting a brand new box of crayons as a child. Or, even better, when my mother used to make up a batch of play dough (she didn’t cook much that was edible, but she sure could make play dough). These were moments when possibility presented itself and possibility seemed infinite.
With no preconceived notions about what I was supposed to draw or mold and not worried about anyone judging my creation, possibility really was infinite.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown references research by Dr. Stuart Brown on the importance of play. Brene summarizes Dr. Brown’s research as finding “play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation.” She goes on to say that one of the properties of play identified by Dr. Brown is that it is purposeless.

When is the last time you did something purposeless? I look at the long list of activities I’ve engaged in over the past 20 years and I cannot help but notice that they all came with goals. Hang gliding was the first activity I pursued goalessly since before I went to college. Even at that, I still had a goal of flying off the training hills.

But last Sunday, I managed to set aside my desire to get “great” shots and flopped down on the ground next to the first daffodils I’ve seen this year. There is something fundamentally wonderful about rolling around on the ground and not worrying about getting dirty. When I have a camera in my hands, I feel like I have permission to get dirty. Sometimes I forget I haven’t actually dressed appropriately and come home with mud on the knees of expensive jeans. I think it’s worth it.

So, there I was, lying in the dirt with a sudden sense of exploration instead of pressure. Just like pulling a new color out of a box of Crayolas and seeing what it looks like on paper for the first time, I paid attention to what happened when I did different things instead of worrying about whether my images would stand up to anyone else’s critique. It was fun. Really fun.

A Bigger Small World

Some days, it feels like you’ve reached an end of sorts.  I had one of those days this week.  I sat on our balcony watching the sky change to a gentle gray as the sun came up somewhere out of sight.  I sat on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and Stringer’s Ridge and felt caged.  I sat on the balcony and thought, “This is not my life.”

It’s a paradoxical thought to have–after all, of course it is my life.  At least, I hope so.  It’s the only life I expect to have; I’d like it to be mine.

But sometimes life feels too small.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I am sometimes overcome by the sensation that the world has shrunken to less than a half of a square mile.  Then, I go walk that half of a square mile listening to the birds and I smile.  It’s not such a bad ½ square mile.

Spotting a large flock of Cedar Waxwings while walking Tisen the following morning, I was surprised by how still they were.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I decided to take a chance after getting inside, grabbed it and ran back down.

The whole flock remained.  Some were roosting.  Periodically, small groups would fly down to the wetland to drink.  The rest were content to watch me.  I wondered if the world had started to feel small to them, too.

It’s funny how the size of the world shrinks and expands based on who is part of the world with you.

I entertained them with my funny, long lens and they entertained me.  For the few moments I spent intensely focused on the birds, watching them and waiting for moments to shoot, my world was simultaneously microscopic and infinite.  That such creatures exist bend the mind.  With their bandit masks, neon-yellow dipped tails, and red-wax-tipped wings, they always make me imagine a bird super-hero.

In spite of how common they are, the Cedar Waxwing goes surprisingly unnoticed.  I did not see one for the first time until I was around 30 even though I knew what they were from bird books–most people overlook them because they don’t know they exist.  I’ve had numerous people ask me about seeing a small, gray cardinal, knowing I like birds and hoping I could tell them what they saw.  Like me, these are people who are well into adulthood, yet they had never seen a cedar waxwing before.

Perhaps that’s why a flock of birds can make life seem bigger.  That something can be right under our noses (or above our heads) and go unnoticed makes it seem possible that there are many other missed possibilities within the confines of whatever portion of the world we inhabit.  The potential to discover something new in the same half of a square mile suddenly makes the possibilities seem endless.