I Handed Away My Heart

I handed away my heart. It happened accidentally—I meant to hold something back. A little lifeline to reality: my dog would only be in my life for a few short years.

But now my heart is breaking. Each crack created by a change in my dog as the tumor in his brain grows. Each time he runs into something, each time he stumbles and falls, each time he looks blankly at a favorite toy and leaves it behind, I feel a new tear.

We are both disintegrating—I in my chest and he in his head.

I am so honored to be loved by this dog. A dog who came to us as a foster dog from the local shelter. They had nursed him for 2 months after his previous humans had tried to starve him to death on purpose.

How could I not have given this boy my whole heart? He loved me. He had no reason to trust a human ever again, but he claimed me as his and went all-in. He has been my constant shadow, convinced I was not safe in the world without him by my side.

How could I withhold any part of my heart when my heart was all he asked for? My heart and squeaky toys. My boy gave me, and his squeaky toys, unconditional love in a way that only a dog can.

A dog reaches into that soft and squishy place that reminds us what is most important in life—-tapping into the essence of our humanity. A dog gives us the hope we are better people than we thought we were and inspires us to be better still.

To be entrusted with another being’s happiness and his very life reminds me I am powerful, tender, needed, loved. My responsibility to him requires me to be patient, kind, gentle, forgiving. And somehow, it’s easy to be patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving when the smallest smile makes a dog’s tail wag. Dogs are masters of positive reinforcement.

But I’d forgotten what a tricky thing it is to keep your heart safe. After all, it’s been 6 years since I last lost a dog. That’s the trouble with dogs. You think you’ve prepared yourself for the shortness of their lives. You think you’re going to be just fine. And then the day comes when you are faced with the reality that the end is near. That’s when you realize you’ve handed away your heart. Even if accidentally.

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Returning Home

Trips to Columbus, Ohio are always confusing to me. I never know which direction should be referred to as “going home.” I once wrote that home is where your bed is. By that criteria, I guess Chattanooga is our home destination. However, having spent nearly 40 years living in Columbus, the paltry 3 we’ve lived in Chattanooga have not been enough to erase the feeling of returning home when we head North on 75.

This last trip North ended the longest stretch I’ve gone to date between trips to Columbus. It’s been long enough that I can’t actually remember when my last trip up was, but I know it wasn’t in this calendar year. With my remaining family all living elsewhere these days and many of my friends having moved away as well, it sometimes catches me off guard how much Columbus still feels like home. When I think about what makes it feel homey, here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. I know how to get to every place I want to go without using GPS. If one route has traffic, I know another route, also without GPS.
  2. I can come up with restaurants I want to eat at based on style of food, quality of adult beverages, particular favorite dishes, or outdoor ambience. (I confess, I did have to check with several restaurants on whether they allow dogs on their patio or not–Tisen came along on this trip.)
  3. I know where the “bad” parts of town are.
  4. I know where the best camera shops in town are and which ones carry Canon gear.
  5. I have a doctor and a dentist there.
  6. I know where to go for a safe pedicure without an appointment.
  7. Graeter’s Ice Cream is available just about everywhere–even Costco.
  8. The biggest problem is trying to fit everyone we want to see into a few days and realizing we’re not going to be able to get to see many of the people we’d love to catch up with.
  9. We have a place to stay where there is a room just for us and our dog is welcome (and offers from several other friends to stay with them)–I guess we do have a bed in Columbus.

This trip was timed around the Columbus Guitar Show. It was my first time working a show (although I’ve attended a couple before). Manning the booth and giving away T-shirts to people who participated in my marketing campaign turned out to be both fun and exhausting.

One of the best things about our timing was that we were in Chattanooga for the beginning and end of the Riverbend Festival, but missed the middle of the 9-day event. This means we didn’t get tired of the extra people and traffic in the downtown area. And, we were home in time for the fireworks–out of all the fireworks in Chattanooga, the Riverbend fireworks are by far the best and longest display.

Bearing Witness

I imagine I look odd walking through the park with my dog, me carrying whatever toy he’s dropped, my camera, a loupe, and a pair of binoculars.  Probably even odder when I suddenly and without warning drop the leash, step on it, pull up my camera and line a bird in my sights all while talking to the dog, encouraging him to stand still while I attempt to capture a bird that is probably backlit, behind layers of leaves, and likely perched on a tree limb blowing in the wind.

I asked myself the other day why I do this.  I mean, what is it about photography I find so appealing that it’s now been a consistent pursuit for enough years I’d rather not add them up?

I think it comes down to this: photography is a recreation of life. There is in any given image a combination of fact and fiction. A bird, for example, looks the way it looks in a final image based on an endless combination of variables. Some of them I control.  Many of them I don’t.  In the end, any image represents one interpretation of a single moment and the odds of getting an identical image ever again are minuscule–just like the rest of life.

In this act of controlling what can be controlled and dealing with what cannot, there are lessons photography offers.  For example, you can see the same thing a multitude of ways and they are all correct.  And then there’s the expansiveness that results from constraints:  you see more looking through the blinders of a camera frame–it’s as if restricting your view causes better vision.

There’s also the inherent paradox of time.  You capture a moment by being completely in the present with a vision of a future image.  But by transforming that moment into an image, creating that vision of the future, you’ve brought with you a moment from the past. It is the only actual form of time travel that I’m aware of.

Most importantly, when I shoot, I am listening, looking, feeling, tasting, and smelling with the concentration of a hound dog in the hope of gaining a clue about where my next subject will unfold. Thoughts about the past and future get pushed aside, making space for the possibility contained in the present.

Ultimately, photography is an act of gratitude.  Gratitude for having borne witness to something remarkable–whether it’s a weed being struck by the sun, a puffy cloud that happened to show up just when I was looking, or the sudden appearance of a rare bird.  The desire to capture each of those moments requires appreciation of them as subjects worthy of attention.

In this way, photography gives gifts.  It hands me moments I would not have noticed had I never picked up a camera. Never mind the endless struggles and failures at getting exactly what I envision.  Just having been there, fully there, to witness those moments is enough.

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.

The Great Smoky Mountain Wildlife Shoot

Last weekend we went on a river cruise in search of Whooping Cranes (well, in honor of the Sandhills).  While there, two people advised me to go to the Cataloochee Valley to see elk.  On a complete whim, I talked Pat into spending the weekend in Asheville, North Carolina and getting up at 5:15AM on Saturday morning to go shoot some elk.

Let’s recap:  I looked up the Cataloochee Valley, determined how long it would take us to get there, looked up sunrise time to make sure we would get there for the best light (and at a time the elk were likely to be active), looked at the weather forecast to ensure I owned enough layers to possibly stay warm, carefully decided which gear I would carry, found a hotel that didn’t charge more to have a dog than to stay in the room, and determined where Tisen was allowed to go in the park.

Fast forwarding back to Saturday morning, we arrived at the designated intersection only to realize that was the entry to the park, not the entry to the actual valley.  We wound our way up through the mountains slowly, encountering more and more snow as the elevation increased.  Behind use, the sun started coming up.  We paused long enough for me to snap a shot with my iPhone–my “real” camera being out of reach without climbing out of the car on a 1 ½ lane mountain road with 2-way traffic.

IMG_4560

We made it to the Cataloochee valley gate before the light got too bright.  But alas, the gate was closed.  And locked.

Since dogs are not allowed on any trails in the Cataloochee area, we decided to take Tisen for a walk along the closed road.  Given that there was no one else there, we even cheated and let him off leash.  This may have been the first time he ever frolicked in snow.  He’s never run free in snow in the 2 years he’s been with us, at least.

Since there were no elk in sight, I practiced shooting my playful pup.

No elk appeared.  Pat was pretty sure we were still 10 miles from the prime viewing area when we turned around.  We we got back to the car, a Dark-eyed Junco was kind enough to pose for me, even in a wind strong enough to ruffle his feathers.

On the drive back down, we stopped to shoot some cattle.  They were quite curious about us.  Enough so that I found myself wondering if the feed truck happens to be a mini-van very similar to ours.  I started getting nervous when they all started walking toward me briskly–including a bull with a large ring in his nose glinting in the increasing light.  The fence between us was about 3-feet high and consisted of 3 flimsy strings of barb-wire.

With the exception of a Junco, I ended up with images of the domestic version of “wildlife.”

Christmas Present

Regardless of which version of history you believe and what holiday(s) you do or do not celebrate, I think it’s worthwhile to have a “winding down” of the year during which we shift focus from frenzied work and socialization to calm time with family and friends–and with ourselves in quiet reflection.

For me, it goes kind of like this:  work extra hard for weeks getting ready to be (mostly) out of the office; run like mad for a couple of days to get ready to go visit family; spend a day traveling; relax, unwind, and enjoy being with people I love for a day and a half; discover when I relax that I am exhausted and require frequent naps; spend a day traveling back home; collapse and relax (relatively) quietly until New Year’s Eve, reflecting on the past year and working on some sort of self-discovery that I optimistically believe will lead to life-improvement.

The time with family and the week “off” between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the times that matter most to me.  I’ve given up on massive consumerism in favor of minimizing the gifts and enjoying the visit.  For gifts, I go with silly stocking stuffers and money for my college-aged nephews.

Tisen is the only one I go overboard on.  I bought him a fleece that fits him like a dress, a bigger Lamb Chop, and some treats.  He’s easy to buy for and he thinks every gift is perfect.

Oddly, now that Christmas is so much easier (stocking stuffers for 4 and money for 2; I don’t even do cards anymore), it’s less enjoyable.  Having removed the majority of the consumerism from the holiday seems to have also removed much of the potential thrill.

After all, the best gift I ever got wasn’t a gift I received, it was the gift of having thought of the perfect gift for someone else.  It truly is the thought that counts–but I want the thought to be “I know you; I see you; I love you as you are.” Not “you really need this thing you’ve never heard of because I think you do.”  Or, “I have no idea what you would want, so thank you for making a list.”

Gone is the feeling of connectedness and belonging that comes along with knowing someone else so well or at least having paid close enough attention that you came up with that perfect gift for them.

On the flip side, after years of failing to think of the perfect gift for the people I love, I go in with realistic expectations and come out without disappointment.

Perhaps the secret is not tying the spiritual calming of year end reflection and time with loved ones to gift giving.  Perhaps we could give gifts when the perfect idea presents itself instead of based on a date on the calendar.  Then the only problem is if the perfect idea never comes.