asap - after school arts program

you never know what you might see

20070101-100_0496(All photos used in this article were taken by participants in the Des Moines ASAP program)

The class was small – only five – but as soon as I began talking with these particular students on their first day in the ASAP (After School Arts Program) program several weeks ago, I knew I was in for an adventure. As they took their seats in a circle, I asked why they chose to be in this particular class featuring photography. Each expressed more than just a passing interest in taking pictures and using cameras, but it was their insightful, descriptive answers to my next question that really drew me in. It’s a question I have asked many times before, but usually with adults – not with 4th and 5th graders:

“What is one of the most beautiful things you have seen?”

Their hands shot up. One young girl mentioned a crystal she had once seen that sparkled endlessly as it moved with the light that was shining on it. Another girl spoke of being on a sandy beach near the ocean at sunset – with all the bright, vibrant colors of orange and gold and pink that filled the sky. Yet another student mentioned a hawk she had seen that week. With a tilt of her head, I could see that she was no longer seeing us in the classroom, but she had returned to that particular moment in her mind’s eye. With smooth, animated gestures of her hands for emphasis, and with a far-off look in her eyes that was beyond the physical presence of the room, she slowly, deliberately, recounted the story:

“I’ve seen a lot of hawks around before, but never one this close. It had landed on the roof of our neighbor’s house. As I looked at it, I could see the texture of the feathers – the way they were layered on top of one another. I could see that the feathers had different shades of brown and white – not just one shade of brown, but many – light brown and dark brown and all the shades in between. And then I noticed the hawk’s beak and the way it curved – and how shiny it was as the light from the sun was reflecting off of it.”

Then, the only boy in this particular class spoke:

“One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen? My church. But also, I have to say that one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen is that tree outside the window. And also, in this art room, there’s that poster of the color wheel over there that is also beautiful. That picture with the lines and curves and colors? Well, that’s beautiful, too. And really, anything can be beautiful if you really want to see it that way.”

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I’m not making that up. He really said that. Those of you who know me would understand why my smile became even bigger at that moment.

“Anything can be beautiful if you want to see it that way.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. I was in the right class.

Two weeks later, we went outside into an enclosed courtyard accessible from the room where we gather. Though I was initially going to offer a task for them to complete, I realized quickly that they needed no nudge from me. Instantly, they were off with cameras in hand, framing the wonders that they discovered.

There was the young boy photographing the fluff of dandelions in the grass – and then attempting to catch photos of the fluff as he blew on the puff. Then, he was hunched over the sidewalk capturing the blur of his fidget spinner spinning on the ground. Later, he found a tiny spider enjoying a meal of something caught in its web.

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One of the girls found two large grasshoppers on a wall, moved on to a bee landing on flowers, and finished by finding a praying mantis slowly making its way up a tree.

Two of the other girls took the occasional abstract route. While one photographed horizontal shadow lines, geometric shapes in bent metal, and what she could see by looking down through the center hole of a metal picnic table, the other found the curve of a picnic table and the corner where the lines of bricks came together.

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Later, in experimentation, one caught a picture of her hat – thrown in the air, and the other came face to face with the praying mantis noticed earlier by her classmate.

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Near the end of the class, I was speaking with the girl who uses gestures as she speaks, and with that tilt of her head which is so characteristic of her, she said:

“Sometimes, I like to lie down on a picnic table and take pictures of the sky…because  you never know what you might see.” 

When I uploaded her images later on my laptop, I saw she had taken three photographs that were nothing but the brilliant blue sky. No birds. No trees. No butterflies. Simply the brilliant blue sky, and I could hear her voice reminding me why…

“…because you never know what you might see.”   

20070101-100_0496              writing by Shari Miller, photos by the ASAP participants

If you would like to know more about ASAP (the After School Arts Progam) or find out ways that you could support the program check out their website at www.asap-dsm.org.

 

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human potential, photography

grit & a quarter of a million failures

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In November 2011, we purchased our first DSLR camera. Since then, I have taken several hundred thousand digital images, and I have deleted significantly more than I have kept. Going through the set of images I have taken so far this week, I see that my average keep is about one out of every 12-15.  (That’s not even close to batting .300.) Approximately 92-94 out of every one hundred images that I take never make it to my “to be considered” file. And, out of those that do, only about one in three ever gets posted. I won’t do the math to figure out what that batting average would be, but it’s pretty low.

Years ago, I heard the quote from Michael Jordan – the one that talks about the 9000 shots he missed, the hundreds of games he lost, and the dozens of times he was trusted with the game-winning shot – and missed. I remember watching some of the Chicago Bulls’ games and marveling at the athleticism, the grace, and yes, the beauty with which Jordan played. He made it look so easy – as if it all just flowed naturally from who he was. He must have been “born with it,” right? I think something within us wants to believe that’s the case. If people are simply “born with it,” it lets us off the hook. They were just lucky – and we weren’t.

But then if we return to his quote, we are forced to realize that it wasn’t simply a matter of his being lucky. Yes, perhaps he did have some innate talent that he was just “born with.” But…without the 9000 shots missed, the many lost games, and the last-second disappointments, would he have become the basketball great that we all knew?

I have a friend who is an amazing pianist.  Watching and listening to him play is mesmerizing. He doesn’t look at the keys, and his fingers flow effortlessly over the piano. When I played years ago, I had to keep looking down at the keyboard to be sure I was playing the right notes. When I told him that, he flippantly (he has a bit of a sarcastic streak in him) said, “Why? The keys aren’t going to move.” He told me about playing the piano as a young child. He loved it. Really loved it. After school, he would come home and practice until dinner, and after dinner, he would play for another couple of hours. Every day.

Several hours a day – every day.

Huh. I took nine years of piano lessons, but I’m almost certain I never – or rarely – logged more than an hour a day. A half hour was about my max – and I definitely did not practice every day. Some weeks, the only practice I did was in the half hour before my weekly lesson.

Do I wish I could play the way my friend plays? Absolutely. Was I willing to put in the hours of work necessary to get there? Nope. I didn’t have the same passion and purpose.

Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (find her TEDtalk here), has spent years studying the how and why behind people who succeed greatly and those who don’t. Those who push through to completion and those who give up. She has studied West Point cadets as well as National Spelling Bee finalists and winners. She has talked with urban school students and Olympic champions – always pursuing the question “Why?” Why do some make it while others of similar talent, skill, and IQ don’t? If success were solely based on characteristics like talent, skill, or IQ, why is there such a disparity of success between people who, by all measures, seem to have similar attributes? Why do some stick with it while others give up?

Her eventual answer? Grit.

Here’s how Duckworth describes it:

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

In other words, grit is making mistakes, learning from them, and always continuing to move forward. It is sticking with something even when challenges and obstacles come along because the goal is so compelling to you. Grit is a belief in a growth mindset – that is, believing that intelligence, skills, and talent are not static but can be developed with effort, strategies, and feedback. Grit is a belief that hard work and effort can and do play a significant role in the outcome of our situations. Grit is a willingness to keep at something for the long haul without giving up. Grit is about having such a passion and sensing such a purpose for what you are doing that you will absolutely not give up.

Some people seem to have a lot of it – and others not so much.

If you’re curious, Duckworth has a free, short, online “test” you can take, The Grit Scale, to see how gritty you are. Of course, I was hoping to see I had a high grittiness score, and…well? I didn’t. After some reflection, this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve changed jobs a lot. I’m enthusiastic about starting new projects, but I don’t always follow them all the way to completion before something else catches my attention. (You can ask my husband about this, and he’ll confirm it. We often joke about the degree to which my attention is diverted: “Ooooh, look! Something shiny!”) However, because I do believe in a growth mindset, I’m determined to put some effort into becoming grittier as I move forward.

Which brings me back to my journey as a photographer and the lessons that I could learn from the process. Photography is an area where I can claim a bit of grit. As mentioned earlier, it’s likely that I have taken well over 250,000 digital photographs in the past five and a half years. Of those quarter of a million images, I have probably deleted over 90%. And only a fraction of that 10% of images has ever actually seen the light of day. It’s strange, though, for reasons I don’t completely understand, I’ve never looked at any of those images as worthless “failures.” Each and every one has been a stepping stone. Each and every photograph has taught me something.

In the beginning, it was often a case of my looking at the back of my camera after a shot, and seeing that it was completely black. Oops. Guess I underexposed. If the back were completely white? Oops. Guess I overexposed. Would these images be considered “failures”? Unless I had had the intention to create abstract imagery of a starless, moonless, lightless night or a polar bear in a blizzard (which I didn’t), absolutely. But in the end, though they may have been “failures,” they were not lacking in value. These “failures” taught me what I didn’t want. They taught me what didn’t work – and also what might work. In gaining clarity of what I did not want, I also gained clarity and direction to move toward what I did want. Though the all-black and all-white images on the back of my camera are quite rare these days, I still examine each and every photograph I take to see if the image has arrived yet, or far more likely, is still on its way.

I’ve often said that I would like to live my non-photographic life more like I pursue photography – seeing each mistake, failure, or imperfection not as something to try to avoid, hide, or be ashamed of, but instead simply as a stepping stone, a lesson to be learned. Being more willing to try new things and experiment. Taking chances even if I’m uncertain of the outcome. Not being frustrated when I can’t do something the first time I try. It’s definitely a work in progress. A lot of life’s challenges aren’t deleted quite as easily as a digital file is, but I’m working on it.

What are the things that you would really like to do? What are the ideas sitting in the back of your mind that beckon you to keep moving toward them? What have you given up on taken a break from that you truly would like to pick up again? What passions and purposes inspire you so much that you would continue to do them no matter what obstacles you encounter? Where would you like to have more grit?

Duckworth says:

“[Grit] rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve the future.” 

Our own efforts can improve the future. There’s something satisfying in that. It moves us from a place of powerlessness to one of authentic power. A place where we realize – and believe – that we can make a difference. It doesn’t end with the first shot missed – or the 9000th. It doesn’t end with the first wrongly played note – or the 600th. It doesn’t end with the first deleted image or the 250,000th. It simply doesn’t end – not if we continue learning and improving as we pursue our purpose with passion – and a little bit of grit.

creating a kinder world

in 28 square feet

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Imagine, if you will, that you are at the center of an invisible circle. Your body, standing, is the center point, and the radius of the circle extends three feet away from you in all directions. Perhaps think of an abnormally large hula hoop on the ground that is six feet in diameter, and you are standing directly in its center. Wherever you are right now, become aware of what you see within that circular space. What do you see within the three feet in front of you? What do you see in the three feet to your right? To your left? If you turn your head or your body, what is in the three feet behind you? Just for a moment, consider that three feet around you in each direction your circle of influence. What happens within that space has the capacity to be influenced by YOU.

Three feet from us. It’s just a mere 36 inches – a yard. The circle covers just a little over 28 square feet. It’s not a big space. On a planet whose surface area covers 197 million square miles, the three feet around us in each direction seems a bit insignificant. We might be tempted to think that whatever happens within that space can’t have much effect on a world that is exponentially larger. However, those three feet around us in every direction aren’t static. Those three feet shift as we do. As we move through our lives, those three feet of influence follow us like our own shadow.

Think back to the past twenty-four hours. During that time, who was in that three-foot space? Colleagues? Family members? Cashiers? People on the bus or train? The couple sitting in the booth behind you? Did you notice those other people? Did you interact with them in some way? And if so, what was the nature of those interactions?

Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and columnist for On Being, recently wrote a piece entitled Your Three Feet of Influence, encouraging all of us to consider that

“the world we can most try to affect is the one immediately around us.”

She mentions how we often speak wistfully of the things we value – things like fairness, generosity, and compassion – yet we speak them as if they are out of reach in the world as it is. We speak of them with a certain “cynical idealism” – that yes, ideally, THIS is what we would like to experience, but we aren’t holding our breath to see examples of it in the world. I mean, really. Have you seen the news lately?

Yet Salzberg challenges us to be open to doing what we can to create this reality – one that is filled with those things that we value: kindness, compassion, generosity, fairness, and so on – even if it is simply within our three feet of influence. Much as Gandhi spoke of “being the change you wish to see in the world,” Salzberg challenges us to create this ideal in our own circle that follows us wherever we go.

In the article, she describes the experience of her son’s friend – running late, already in a bit of a mood, and on a packed subway train during rush hour – I think we all can relate to experiencing similar moments. Salzberg recounts the story as he attempted to practice this idea of his “three feet of influence.” Reading through his thought process in each moment, it was evident that he was being pulled in two different directions. There was the immediate, reptilian response of reactivity that each interaction seemed to elicit – but in being aware enough to want to put this idea of kinder influence into practice, he chose not to act on that instant impulse. Instead, he paused for a brief moment and intentionally chose the kinder, more understanding response. The small shifts that occurred – within him and within those around him – were noticeable. There was more patience. More connection. He was influencing his three feet.

I am reminded of a recent experience I had while riding a train into downtown Chicago with a friend. As we were chatting through the din of the late-morning commute, my friend said to me,

“He’s drawing an ear.”

A bit confused, I looked where her eyes were looking, and as I saw the man in the corner seat with a pencil and drawing pad, she said, “Once in a while, he holds it in such a way that I can see his drawing. He’s drawing the ear of a passenger.”

When I think back to that moment with this idea of our “three-foot circle of influence,” I find it curious and amazing that the artist, unintentionally and unaware, was affecting his own three-foot circle. (Granted, my friend and I were a bit more than three feet away – as was the passenger whose ear was being drawn, but still.) Though I don’t think the subject of his drawing was ever consciously aware that his ear was being sketched, his humanity and his mere existence were indirectly being affirmed by the artist. Directly within the artist’s  three feet of influence, however, there was a young man with a thin face and lean, long body. Probably in his twenties, he, too, was intently watching the man’s process. This went on for several stops. And then? 

They spoke.

A connection was made. One circle of influence overlapped another. A question was asked, and the young man admitted that he, too, was an artist. Though we could only hear bits and pieces of this conversation between these two “strangers,” it had to do with process and with the type of pencil the older man was using – and it ended with the older man offering both the pencil and his drawing of the ear as gifts to the younger man. The young man was quietly grateful and descended at the next stop with the drawing and pencil in hand. My friend and I were moved. Inspired. THESE are the stories that need to be told, the stories that need to be heard.

Our circles of influence may not be physically bigThey may only cover a thin sliver of the earth’s entire surface, yet the impact we can have upon that sliver need not be overlooked. In Salzberg’s story, the young man – as well as those in his circle – experienced a visceral, positive effect after he chose a different, kinder response from what his initial reaction would have been. His attention and his intention created a shift. An artist, seemingly unaware of his own circle of influence, created another shift for three to four others nearby.

What if, one by one, we decided to take full responsibility of our 28 square feet? What if we began to commit ourselves whenever possible, to do what we can to create the kinder, compassionate world right where we are? Will we remember and succeed every time? No, we’re human – not perfect. Yet what if, at least some of the time, more of us begin to bring just a little of that intention into our 28 square feet? How much area could we cover?

shari miller

 

delight, gratitude, photography, symbolism

delight in the form of a broken lioness

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It’s an unexpected experience, this thing called delight. It’s a word that we don’t hear all that often anymore but one that seems deserving of a comeback. Perhaps more than deserving at this point and time – perhaps necessary. How often do we actually go out and seek delight? When I think back in my own life to moments where I felt the sensation of utter delight, it hadn’t been something I was necessarily looking for.

It was unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought.

In an instant, there it was. I imagine if I had been an observer, I would have noticed my mouth agape, the corners of my lips upturned as if readying for a smile, a sparkle in my eye, and a lightness of being. Delight has that effect. It inhabits us, even if only for a fleeting moment – hopefully, long enough for us to become aware of it to enter fully into its presence.

I’ll admit that the past several months have been a bit rough. My father’s health has been declining, and he has been enduring chronic, nearly unbearable pain for an extended period of time. If you know him, you know that he has always been a “go-er,” a “doer” – one who chooses not to slow down – even through and despite any pain he may have been experiencing. Even though his own gait has been stilted with limping for a couple of years, he continued to drive for Meals on Wheels, do nearly all the yard work, volunteer at a local pantry, help with church activities, and go for coffee every morning with the “old cronies.” However, the pain of the last couple of months has stopped him cold. He must use a walker to move from one place to another – and with each step, it is easy to see the excruciating pain he experiences. He no longer leaves the house except for appointments – and rarely leaves the couch or chair. To say this is uncharacteristic of my father is an understatement.

Procedure after procedure have been tried to no avail. Each new procedure presents us with both hope and trepidation. Hope that something will finally work to relieve his pain – and trepidation that it will simply result in another disappointment. Another disappointment for him. Another disappointment for my mother (whose patience in the past month, in the midst of frustrations and uncertainty, has risen to an unbelievable level). Another disappointment for his family and friends who miss his contagious (and loud) laugh and presence.

Watching parents age is not for the faint of heart.

And so with a combination of my emotions on overdrive from my father’s challenges, from watching my oldest son Nick graduate and look with excitement toward the next chapter of his life in college, from feeling a void at not being a part of an annual event in which I participated for the past seven years, and from several rejections in the vocational and photographic realm, I have definitely been in a phase of my life that is demanding that I move with grief and loss as frequent companions – in all the myriad forms they take.

Not that this past couple of months have been only grief and loss. There has been much to rejoice along the way, too. The moments that my dad feels good enough to come to the table to play a few rounds of dominoes. Laughter with my mother that is so intense that she “hurts from laughing.” Truly feeling excited about Nick heading off to begin his college life because I remember feeling the same way. FINALLY getting a “yes” on something that was probably the yes that I wanted the most. Patience from my husband and sons as they realize that I’m a bit “on edge” at the moment. Getting away by myself for a few days…

Finding gratitude in the moments, around the edges, and in the midst? That I can do – most of the time. I’ve been practicing that for a while. But finding delight – which seems much rarer and harder to expect? Is it possible to seek delight? I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to try.

In a conversation with a friend recently, in expressing the challenges that life is offering me, I mentioned that I was going to actively seek light and delight. So imagine my surprise yesterday morning, when delight found me – in the form of a broken figurine of a now faceless lioness tossed randomly aside in the grass near a path on which I was walking. I can’t explain it. I laughed out loud when I picked it up, and I was giggling inwardly all the while that I was posing her in a shallow puddle nearby. I knew it when I felt it, though. THIS was delight.

As these words formed this morning, my curiosity was piqued. I believe that our external world has a way of showing up with signs and messages – if we are open to seeing them. I find it extremely satisfying to seek meaning and metaphor in that which we encounter in our lives, and in this case, I found a broken, faceless lioness. With a mid-August birthday, I am a Leo, and I have been known to shoot a portrait of a lion or two. I’m a sucker for symbolism and metaphor, so I had to know. What might a lion or lioness symbolize? What message might this animal be offering to me? And, thanks to the wonders of the internet, these three topped my Google search:

Family ties

Courage

Strength

Ha. Coincidence? I doubt it. And the fact that the lioness figurine was broken? Even more appropriate. Yes, courage and strength are necessary these days – but I’d be a liar if I claimed that my courage and strength hadn’t been fractured or sprained as of late. Besides, I’m not sure I would have found the same delight in a lioness that had been whole. This lioness was faceless for goodness sake, and I offered it a photo shoot.

Yet there was something satisfying, something delightful even, about taking that which had been cast aside and forgotten, broken, abandoned, and “in the mud” – and honoring it with its own (admittedly comical) photo shoot. Though she had no face and no voice to speak, she still held a message – at least for me.

Delight in the form of a broken, faceless lioness.

Unexpected. Un-awaited. Unsought. Just as delight usually is.

–shari miller

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