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.”


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.


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.


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.


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



the gratitude challenge


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.


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.


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