lighthearted, photography

little twist

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Friday afternoon, I took my camera and headed out for a walk through the woods on a full sun, bright and chilly day. Not long into my walk, I found myself “grounded,” crouched low, holding my camera nearly level with the earth. My preferred vantage point.

The vibrant green patches of moss had been pulling my eyes to them as soon as I left the road and continued on the path. Eventually, I finally found a swath that seemed full of life and easily accessible without too many thorned plants around it. (My back side thanked me for that.) I squatted down to begin focusing on all the little anthropomorphic sprouts standing around on the carpet of green when my eyes glanced up at a nearby plant for a moment and saw a beautiful, tiny spiral vine that whispered (not so quietly) “Me! Me! Me!”

I’ll admit, it seems like a strange notion…

…but I’ve heard other photographers mention it as well, so I know I’m not the only one that has so-called inanimate objects “speak” to them. Sometimes, quite often actually, I find that photography is far less about ME finding a subject and far more about the subject finding ME. The little things seem to have their own channel and frequency in my brain, and when they want to be heard, they simply broadcast their message in my head and nudge my eyes to see them. (To be honest, these tiny voices from nature are far kinder than other voices that occasionally make themselves present in my mind.)

I carefully removed the spiral – maybe an inch high at most – and began posing it – well, her. Yep. Posing . Placing her fragile little body carefully in the moss – to become fast friends with the red-bodied, yellow-tipped beings standing around wondering what was up with this twisted newcomer in their community. Some stood back, hesitant, while others saw new adventure in coming over to join in the dance. Soon, the daring ones were intertwined with the twisted stranger in their midst.

They danced together for a while until little twist was ready for more adventures. I plucked her carefully from the moss and continued on my way – camera bag over my shoulder, camera in one hand, tiny & fragile twist between my thumb and forefinger. We crossed a bridge, and this daring little twist wanted to tempt fate. It was slightly windy, so I was certain to find a crack in the wood on the railing of the bridge that could hold her securely – safe from an unfortunate fall. A couple of walkers and a jogger passed by, and, much to the chagrin of little twist, the humans cast their eyes in the distance to try to figure out just what I was finding to photograph. They completely overlooked my new little friend.

That’s one thing I’ve noticed – the passersby rarely look close by for what is being photographed – they look far away. It’s as if beauty is always “over there” instead of right in front of us.

Having had her adrenaline rush on the bridge, we both knew it was time for the final photo shoot. Walking on, being held even more carefully between thumb and forefinger after having lost a bit of her footing in an unfortunate accident of excessive pressure (for which I was apologetic and for which she offered me much grace), we sought the ideal location for the last portrait.

And there it was. Down a hill a bit and through a small thicket of thorned plants (of course), but there it was – a thick old log that had been cut down some time ago. The wood was decayed, plenty of cracks and crevices lined its bark, and it wore its moss like a well-loved and well-worn coat that was, perhaps, a year or two beyond its prime. A cover of trees filtered the harshest of the sun’s light, and with great care, little twist was placed in one of the cracks.

It took quite a few shots. I was seeking great clarity, great sharpness, and great definition, and little twist took it all in stride. When I began to pay more attention to the photograph I was creating than to her, she gently reminded me that perfect focus in the image was not the intention – perfect focus on the moment was. On the presence to one another. A simple presence.

In being seen. In being honored. In being noticed. Thank you, little twist, for the reminder.

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–shari miller


©2017 shari miller photography (all photographs & words are my own unless otherwise noted)

 

 

yearning to understand

seeking the soft

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Soft or hard. Black or white. Right or wrong.

It seems that, as humans, we desire things to be one thing or another. We want to believe that absolute clarity and absolute certainty exist. We want to believe that people are either one thing or another, that answers are either right or they are wrong, and that people remain the same indefinitely. We seem to think that there is great security in believing in this dualistic static type of a world where there are two clearly separated categories: Good or Bad. Always. End of story.

But life presents us with a much different reality – that there is much gray in this world. Things shift, people change, and that which we had thought to be solid may eventually crumble, and we are left wondering what to make of it. We see things from our own perspectives, we judge ideas and people based on our own interpretations, and we can all read a simple sentence such as:

“I never said he did that.”

and understand it in at least six different ways depending on where we put our emphasis. Try it. Say each one of these sentences out loud, emphasizing the word in bold, and then tell me that each sentence wouldn’t be heard and understood differently.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

See what I mean?

We each come to every moment of our lives with a different level of consciousness and a different grasp of our own self-awareness. We move through this world with our own ideas and beliefs about how the world works. Our background experiences and the culture in which we live have influenced how we see the world, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. There are over seven billion (7,000,000,000) people on this earth. Seven billion life experiences. Seven billion ways that the world has been experienced. Seven billion interpretations.

And then we wonder why we struggle to agree on things.

Take a look at this image:

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Now take a look at this one:

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They look different, right? Are they two different images of two different leaves taken at two different times? Or are they two different images of the same leaf? They look completely different – one leaf is deep dark red while the other is light brown, and the background is different. Yet they ARE the same leaf. The leaf didn’t move. I did. One photograph was taken about 30 seconds before the other. The subject didn’t change – I did. How it appeared shifted based on where I placed myself and how I chose to see it.

There are an infinite number of other ways I could have photographed this leaf – from above, from the side, from the other side, from an angle, from underneath the deck. Each would give a completely different perspective, a completely different view of the same thing.

It reminds me of the tale of the blind people who were being told what an elephant was by feeling it. However, one felt only the trunk, another only the tail, another only a leg, yet another felt a tusk, another its back side. They were told, “This is an elephant.” Afterward, when asked to describe what an elephant is, their descriptions could not have been more different. Was one person’s description of the elephant more accurate or inaccurate than another’s? No, they were each describing the same exact subject, and to each of them, the description they gave was their reality. Was each experience different, and did they come to different conclusions? Absolutely. But they did not have the full story.

We do this with people all the time. How often do we see one version of them, one experience of them, and think we know who they are and how they are? How often have we been on the receiving end of the same? How often have others had one experience of us, and then they judge us entirely based on that one thing? Many times, we’re left thinking, “But wait…wait…there’s more to this story than what you’re seeing!”

Exactly.

There’s more to EVERY story than what we see.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the idea that people, in general, are doing the best they know how to do. Period. I’ve been working on living into that idea, and I’ll admit that this last year is testing me. How can this be? How does one even begin to reconcile this naïve notion with all the violence and hate that seems to be so prevalent in our world? How could we even consider the notion that someone’s “best” involves yelling “Get out of my country!” before shooting two people, killing one. How can someone’s “best” be a premeditated idea of pounding at least 40 four-inch nails into tree roots and logs leaving a 1/2 inch to an inch of the point exposed at an angle with an intention to impale runners and walkers on a trail in the woods of North Carolina? How can someone’s “best” be seen in the bomb threats & cemetery vandalism that is happening within the Jewish community?

It seems illogical. We (I) don’t want to believe it.

And yet.

We don’t have the whole story.

Author and theologian Parker Palmer once said,

“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

There are a lot of people suffering out there right now.

We have likely heard that people who were abused as children often end up becoming the abuser. We know that mental illness plagues a significant portion of the population. We know that people who live in a state of powerlessness and oppression long enough will resort to extreme measures in an attempt to feel some sort of power again. We know that extended periods of isolation and feelings of not being accepted can make people vulnerable to accept any type of belonging when it is offered – whether it is a certain clique at school, a political party, a neighborhood gang, or even a group of neo-Nazi skinheads.

Paul Rusesabagina was the hotel owner whose life was portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In his book, An Ordinary Man, Rusesabagina tells of being criticized after the genocide was over for being too kind to the generals and the other militia who came to his hotel during the height of the killings. During the violence, he continued to serve and be respectful to these men who were ordering and committing horrific acts of brutality. His response to this has stayed with me for years.

He kept seeking the soft.

He kept seeking the soft. In describing this, Rusesabagina referred to the Nazis who were able to work at the concentration camps overseeing the gas chambers during the day – and then could return to their homes at night to play games with their kids or put a record of Bach on the turntable. Rusesabagina tried (sometimes with lesser or more degree of success) to see people – not in clear categories of black and white, good or evil – but in degrees of hard or soft. He believed that neither hard nor soft was ever in complete control of one’s actions.

“Take the colonel: He had come fresh from a world of machetes, road gangs, and random death and yet was able to have a civilized conversation with a hotel manager over a glass of beer and let himself be talked out of committing another murder.” –Paul Rusesabagina

As he served these men who were committing such atrocities, Rusesabagina continued to seek the soft within them, believing that somewhere, someplace, the soft did exist.

I’ll admit. I struggle with this. Particularly in these times where there seems to be so much hate and violence. There are moments, days, and weeks where I do not want to attempt to seek the soft in those who are committing such blatantly hateful acts. Yet, as described in my previous blog post (the gratitude challenge) the seeking of gratitude in the moments that are difficult aren’t about denying the feelings of despair and overwhelm that we may be experiencing. It’s about being open to the possibility that gratitude and despair can be held in the same space, at the same time.

Perhaps it’s the same with seeking the soft. Seeking the soft is not about saying that the hateful behavior should not be condemned. It’s not about telling people who are destroying property or harming others that what they are doing is acceptable and that there will be no consequences. What I think it’s about is attempting to hold the possibility that what we see from one perspective may not be the full story. The horrific violence may only be the tail of the elephant, and we’re missing the rest of the body – the trunk, the tusks, the legs. Behind the unimaginable horrors played out daily in the media may be the stories of people who experienced some unbelievable trauma we can’t even imagine. Behind the controversial and seemingly crazy view that someone holds may be a story that can offer greater understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. This is challenging, seemingly impossible stuff. I think we really want to be able to say someone is pure evil. We want to think that evil is this thing “out there” that doesn’t apply to us at all. That those we deem as “evil” must be less than human, completely different from us, so we can speak of and treat them differently from how we treat people “like us.” Certainly we wouldn’t harbor any of that bad within us, would we?

Would we?

No comment.

If we keep seeking only the hard in others, we’ll find all the evidence in the world to support our viewpoint. But what if we also choose to seek the soft? What if we would choose to pick ourselves up and view the leaf person from another side? How would our own beliefs about others shift if we opened up to the possibility that beyond the hard, there is, perhaps, a glimpse of soft buried deep within, often hidden from view, but there nonetheless? How would we respond if others did the same for us – if others refused to believe that the hard they saw was all there was – and were willing to keep seeking the soft that is buried within us as well?

If it’s true that great shadows only exist because there is also great light, must it also be true that great hardness can exist because there is also great softness? I want to believe this is true.

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shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography (all words & photographs are my own unless otherwise noted)

 

gratitude

the gratitude challenge

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Nearly daily, for almost eight years, I’ve written gratitudes on my personal Facebook page. In the spring of 2009, after ignoring the emotional signs of depression for nearly two years, my physical body decided to make me pay attention by allowing me the “gift” of a bulging disk that left me unable to sit, walk, stand, move, or lie down without being in unbearable pain. Looking back now, it seems like there was some bit of knowing within me that was saying,

“Well, if depression isn’t going to influence you to make some much-needed changes in your life, we’re going to have to get your attention in some other way.” 

Ouch. It worked. For some reason, being completely incapacitated with level 10 pain or being completely incoherent on painkillers was finally motivation enough for me to make some significant changes in my life. As author and motivational speaker Mary Kay Mueller describes in her book Taking Care of Me, the evolution of change often moves in the following way:

When the fear is greater than the pain, we stay where we are.

When fear and pain are equal, we talk about change but stay where we are.

When the pain is greater than the fear, we finally make a change.

Looking back, I must admit that this rang true for me.

Before I had read those words, though, and around the time that I was attempting to move beyond the depression and the physical pain, I heard Mary Kay Mueller speak. Her story was different from mine, but I could definitely find some resonance in what she said. At one point in her presentation, she said, “I am going to offer you a challenge. If you accept and follow through on this challenge, I promise you will experience incredible transformation in your life.”

Was I skeptical? Definitely. Intrigued? Yes. If there had ever been a time in my life that was desperate for transformation, I was living in it. My ears perked up, and what she said next surprised me:

“The challenge is this: write down three NEW things for which you are grateful each day – every day – for the rest of your life.”

What? That’s it? This task is going to help me experience incredible transformation in my life? I’ll admit, my skepticism grew. How could something that seemed so simple be so transformative? I had nothing to lose, though, so I accepted the challenge.

The first few days were easy: my husband, my boys, our house. Food in the fridge, a car to drive, showers. Books, laptops, and, of course, my morning coffee! I was feeling smug. I’ve got this! This is a piece of cake! It’s only three things a day!

Except there was that one other word she mentioned: NEW.

Three NEW things. EACH day. EVERY day. For the rest of my life.

About 2-3 weeks in, it became challenging. I remember waking up one morning feeling as though I was heading back down the dark hole. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I was tired, and the negativity began to swim back into my thoughts. And then all of a sudden? It hit me while I was still in bed.

Wait. I need to find three new things for which to be grateful today.

I don’t remember the date, but I remember the moment. There was a shift happening. I realized that I could spend my day looking for (and finding ample evidence of!) things about which I could complain OR I could choose to begin to look for the good in my day, and so I began seeking it in the smaller things. No longer could I simply be grateful for my family, in general, since I had already listed them. Instead, finding three NEW gratitudes forced me to look for specifics – like when my oldest son emptied the dishwasher after my first request without the usual teenage groan. Or when my youngest son told me that I was a “cool mom.” Or when my husband offered to make dinner.

When I was out and about in the world, I began to notice the little things. The driver that let me merge in front of her as I got on the interstate. The young man who carried my groceries to my car. The woman at the convenience store who is always smiling and joking with the customers. A leaf whose shadow made it look like a butterfly.

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And nature. Ohhh, nature. I swear that in the summer of 2009, there was an explosion of the butterfly population because it seemed that there were more of them around my house than I had ever seen before. I noticed the shapes of the clouds. The details in the bark of the tree. Light. Shadows. The vibrant, ordinary beauty of a dandelion. In seeking those things to be grateful for, I was seeing far more of the world – and it felt different. I felt different.

Humor me a moment.

Right now, think of something you could complain about. Think about all the aspects of it – all the details. Become aware of the emotions tied to that thought. Really go into it, and notice how you feel. Stay there for a bit.

Now stop.

This time, right now, think of something you’re grateful for. Think about all the aspects of it – all the details. Become aware of the emotions tied to that thought. Really go into it, and notice how you feel. Stay there for a bit.

Now stop.

Which one felt better? Which energy was more life-giving?

I’ve done this activity with large groups of people in workshops I have led. Each time, the same thing happens. Eyes closed, they can’t see one another, but I see them. When they enter into the realm of complaining their foreheads tense, their posture droops, their chins tighten. When they enter into the realm of gratitude? Their posture shifts upward. Smiles emerge. Their faces relax.

Then I ask…how long did it take you to switch from the first realm to the second? A few seconds? And could you feel the difference? Inevitably, the answer is YES. They could feel the shift, and as a witness, I could physically see the shift.

The implications of this are quite powerful.

In an interview with On Being‘s Krista Tippett, Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, author, and teacher who has spoken often on gratitude once said,

“Can you be grateful for everything? No, not everything…but in every moment.”

But in every moment.

Yes.

Don’t get me wrong. Finding gratitude isn’t always easy. There are moments in our lives that challenge us – accidents, disappointments, illnesses, diagnoses, losses, death, and myriad other manifestations of living in an uncertain world. These moments can rock us to the core of our being. In these moments, the world often seems dark. Hopeless. Despairing.

And yet.

Even within those moments, if we can open to the possibility, there is often a silver lining. A moment of unexpected grace, a lesson learned, a connection made, a story told. Finding the gratitudes isn’t about denying or shutting out our feelings. It’s not about acting as if we never have difficulties in our lives. It’s more about realizing that the challenges and the gratitudes can hold the same space together. They are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to experience disappointment – while realizing that your capacity for compassion for others may have just been expanded because you have been through something that others have experienced as well. It is entirely possible to grieve while witnessing moments of grace.

The challenge is there for us all. Seek gratitude. Daily. Within each moment. Even when it’s hard – or perhaps especially when it’s hard, and see what transformation might happen for you.

shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography – all photographs & writing are the work of shari miller unless otherwise noted