a piece of my heart

Family reunions are as much a part of summer as sweet watermelon, flickering lightning bugs and long simmering days. My mother-in-law, Alice, and her family, the Dishmans, gather every summer at one sibling’s home or the other to rekindle family ties.

Despite differences in political views, faith, careers, seasons of life, food preferences or changing weather – or perhaps because of them – these reunions are about honoring the roots of family. Nestled in rural King George, Virginia, this family of seven children, born in the years between 1918 and 1932, has a rich history. The father, Sam Dishman, was the county sheriff and the mother, Betty Grigsby Dishman, taught in a one room school house in the community of Tetotum.

With only three siblings remaining, family reunions are poignant. There is the unspoken, yet shared understanding, of the preciousness of this life. And a meal of fried chicken and barbeque and steamed crabs, with creamy coleslaw and baked beans and ice cream, commemorates our gratitude for the place where we began.

I am reminded of a line from the novel Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry which reads, “Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back.” The longer I live, the richer and fuller my understanding becomes of this place and this family. If identity is formed in relation to place, then perhaps this returning to home and the people we grew up alongside, or those who share our heritage, can make us more whole . . . or less broken.  

I only know that I have an unquenchable desire to photograph these people, these rural places, and the artifacts of living, to make sense of what I see and feel.

cousins at play

cousins at play

collage at the foot of the stairs - Dave, Norma Sue, Doug

collage at the foot of the stairs - Dave, Norma Sue, Doug

Pops' workshop - nuts & bolts

Pops' workshop - nuts & bolts

double exposure

double exposure

Lessons on Swimming

I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was a young adult, and even then it was because swimming felt like something to conquer.

As a child who grew up along the Potomac River, you’d think I would have learned to swim earlier. Our family owned a boat and we spent days joy-riding with my father at the helm.  Dad taught us to fish and to scoop up crabs from the pilings along the wharf. He taught me to doggie paddle as this was all he could do as well.

Like all good mothers, mine signed me up for swimming lessons in the one pool in our small town. The pool was a part of the Colonial Beach Hotel and Mr. Willett taught swimming lessons. There was nothing unkind about Mr. Willett, nothing threatening or mean-spirited. Still, the lessons were, from the very beginning, frightening for me. We bobbed up and down, in and out of the water, learning to blow bubbles, trying to breathe rhythmically. Once in a while the boys would play around, taking turns dunking each other beneath the water’s surface. I watched the submerged boy struggle and I was horrified. Released, he would spring to the air, gulping and then laughing, exhilarated by the freedom of a single breath of air.

I tried. I really did. I stuck with the lessons even as anxiety threatened to drown me. To complete the course, we had to jump from the diving board and swim to the side of the pool. I was not afraid of the height, or even the jump. I was afraid I would not make it to the side of the pool. My fear was rooted in the power of the water itself.

It was my husband who re-introduced me to swimming as a newlywed. He patiently supported me in a pool and helped me learn the strokes. With him holding on to me, I relaxed and swimming came more easily.

Then there were years of taking my children to the community pool where my job was to keep a watchful eye; and more years to follow where I felt too fat for a bathing suit and too self-conscious to have fun.

Now there are no more excuses. I want to glide through the water and swim till I am exhausted. To come home with warmed-by-the-sun skin and muscles spent to the cool darkness of the house, where I will sit on the sofa and eat tuna fish sandwiches and chips and watch an old episode of Andy Griffith on television.

Because it is summer, and I am finally a kid.

Pool_0014.jpg

I saw the ghost of Elvis

One of the joys of vacation is trying new places eat. We most often opt for local eateries, cafés, and “Mom and Pop” diners. While on our mountain retreat, we stopped for lunch at Lindsay’s Roost Bar and Grill in Hot Springs, Virginia.

Great home-cooking. Classic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and mayo. Splurged by eating the burger on a bun and added French fries and ketchup, too.

Shared dessert with Dave. Homemade spice cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.

Owners Lindsay and Phil treat everyone like family, and the Roost is clearly a favorite of the locals. The décor is a combination of their favorite collections, roosters for Lindsay and Elvis memorabilia for Phil.

Cash only. Worth every penny.

Long live the King.

why no one wants to travel with me

I try to warn family and friends about traveling with me. I like to stop along the way, here and there. I realize there are many who detest this moseying way of travel. You want to get in the car and drive to your destination – pronto. And when it’s time to return, you set your GPS, calculate distance, time and velocity, prepare alternate routes in case of traffic, use the restroom and set your sights on home.

I feel sorry for you if you are stuck with me. Every 1 hour = 2 hours when you meander.

On the way home from our mini-vacation to Warm Springs, we ventured along Highway 29, through Madison County. At the sight of the bright blue, star-shaped balloons, my focus locked.

“Pull over, Dave.”

“Where?”

“Right there,” I say, pointing to a field.

Dave does not look particularly happy, but he abides my wishes.

“We’re going to pick some blueberries,” I exclaim as I practically skip to the farm stand.

The owner of Ells Farm, Carty Yowell, explains how he tends the blueberry bushes in honor of his father who passed away 5 years ago. He says his friends ask him if it’s worth it to keep up with the berry farm, and he laughs. He figures he makes a couple dollars an hour, but this is a labor of love and he welcomes friends, both old and new.

We ask a few questions.

How long do the blueberry bushes live? With careful pruning and water many of the bushes have lived for 35 years.

We’re traveling and don’t have our berry-picking baskets. No problem. Carty shares his ingenious system. A plastic gallon milk jug with the opening cut wide, a piece of sturdy string tied through the handle, slipped around your neck or cross body, and now you are ready to pick.

How about the cost? $3.00/pound for pick-your-own.  $4.00/pound already picked. Weigh berries on the spring scale and put cash or check in the blue metal box, on your honor. Pick up an original recipe from Carty’s mother for blueberry cobbler or jam.

I’ve waited my whole life to travel in this way . . . so if you want to hurry . . . don’t ride with me.
 
Slow travels are the way to go. It’s okay to stop and be happy. And it’s hard not to be happy with a mouth full of blueberries.

Warm Springs

I faithfully read the blog, Circle of Pine Trees, by Laura Pashby.

Some of my favorite posts from Laura document the weekend excursions, getaways and vacations she takes with family and friends. I love her kitchen stories and adventures out and about. I share with Laura a deep appreciation for the beauty in my surroundings and a sweet contentment that comes from small travels, simple pleasures, and unleashed curiosity. Laura’s travel photographs inspired me to try a few of my own

Dave and I traveled to the Allegheny Mountains of Bath County, Virginia for a two-night, three-day retreat. We stayed in the picturesque village of The Inn at Gristmill Square. The weather was gorgeous in the mountains, with temperatures in the low sixties, skies bright and sunny, with low humidity. We kept our plans simple – good food (including a farm-to-table meal at the Waterwheel restaurant), hiking, a little sightseeing, reading, relaxing, and a scheduled visit to the Warm Springs pools.

From the Bath County travel guide -

With 89% of its landscape still covered in mountain forest, Bath is a place where you can unwind, reconnect with nature, with family, with yourself, and take a gentle journey on the back roads of the mountains and the back roads of time. The George Washington National Forest covers more than 170,000 acres in Bath County, offering outdoor recreation galore.
Bath County is named for the crystal clear mineral waters of the natural warm springs, and travelers have come to Bath to soak in the springs for more than 200 years. This is the perfect place to sit on a porch on a lazy afternoon, soak away your cares in a natural spring, or climb a hill to watch the sun set.

I am never happier than when I wake up with my husband by my side, a homemade breakfast and piping hot coffee delivered to my doorstep, with time to linger on the veranda overlooking the mountains in the cool morning air. I found all this at the Inn at Gristmill Square and much more.  

The Inn at Gristmill Square
Warm Springs, Virginia Post Office                           Falling Spring Waterfall
Breakfast in Bed                                Flower Identification                                          Golden Light
waterwheel at the mill                            crab apples                                     cascading roses

Virginia Roadside Flora

I recall when I first began seriously learning photography, I took many floral portraits. Flowers are beautiful subjects with color and texture, shape and line and form. And most importantly, they hold still. They can be arranged in lovely fashion and moved to the most advantageous light with a background that fades away so the flower shines.

While I still love flowers, I often work with the constraint of the natural environment of the flower, choosing indigenous plants over those flowers from the florist. As I look back at some of my earlier flower images, I see that many are technically correct and composed well, yet they fail to move me. In many ways, they remind me of pages from a seed catalog. Sow these seeds, grow this flower. And if my goal was to make pictures of the plants themselves, the pictures would be fine.

But my goal is not to take pictures for a seed catalog. Instead, I yearn to make pictures that remind me of home. Of long drives on country roads on sultry summer days in the South. Of wayside picnic areas. Of ditches and meadows and fields. Of bouquets little children make for mothers from roadside offerings. There is a certain finesse to making these kinds of photographs – some cross between botanical illustration and painting with light.

Mimosa

Mimosa

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne's Lace

Big Timber

I strive to see things as they are – simple, honest, profound. I try to let go of attachments, expectations and judgments. This is hard.

When I spied the sign for Big Timber Campground, I conjured up an image of RV’s and cookouts, lawn chairs and children frolicking. Perhaps a pond or creek nearby, maybe a swing set or tire swing.

But what I found, instead, was a cluster of neglected and dilapidated trailers, more last resort homes than vacation dwellings. Not a soul in sight, but evidence of a community marked by a long line of mailboxes and a sign with the slogan, “a quiet place to kick back and relax.”

These photographs touch me for the humanity they reveal.

like a little fresh air

I had a rough week. It began on Tuesday with a serious headache; the worst I’d ever experienced. Along with the headache came chills and body aches and a little rash on my cheeks. I couldn’t sleep or eat or concentrate. No appetite. Fatigue. I figured I had a virus that would run its course, but when the headache lingered on for 3 days in a row, I went to our local walk-in clinic.

Fortunately for me, I saw a thoughtful and patient physician’s assistant. She listened to my concerns and asked questions and applied her full knowledge and care toward helping me. Thinking outside the box, she suggested a strep test. Apparently there are times when strep can present in atypical ways without a sore throat. And sure enough, I tested positive for strep.

A few hours later with a dose of antibiotics, I was already on the mend and feeling much better. (I do not like to take antibiotics unless absolutely necessary and I’m taking my probiotics and prebiotics to protect my gut flora).

But something else contributed to my healing, too. Well, really two somethings.

The first, a walk through an old home, now turned antique shop, with my camera in hand.

The second, a video featuring Anne Lamott, 12 Truths I learned from life and writing.

And this passage especially.

While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It's a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," just smile obliquely like Mona Lisa and make both of you a nice cup of tea. Being full of affection for one's goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It's where world peace begins.

There is nothing like illness to make one grateful for good health.

black honey of summer

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
–Mary Oliver, "August"

on discipline

I am enjoying every word of Soul of the Camera by David duChemin. This is largely because it’s all about art and poetry and storytelling and vision and soul and not at all about technical stuff like exposure, camera settings, histograms or even worse, Photoshop or Lightroom.

On discipline . . . .

"Art can be many things and it can take many forms. It can be spontaneous and playful. It can be tremendous fun, and when we’re in a state of creative flow, it seems effortless. But it takes work to get us to a place where flow can occur. It takes discipline." –David duChemin

It was discipline that led me to take this photograph of peaches. Because even when it seemed there was nothing else to photograph in our home and my daily routine and I was feeling uninspired, I pushed through and practiced seeing. 

And it was discipline, the act of daily practice, that enabled me to take this picture of singer/songwriter Karen Jonas – performing for Music on the Steps at the library. This is after all, where I want to be, taking pictures with a human spark. Pictures I love.

on any given sunday

a long walk for miles and miles with dear friends where we talk and talk and the steps fly by.

a shared meal.

a visit to my mother on memory lane with a happy coincidence where my sister is there, too – and we style mom’s hair like two little girls again, playing “beauty salon.”

an afternoon spent processing photographs from yesterday’s Sophia Street Pottery Throwdown

delighted I got a few pictures of the local artist, Dan Finnegan, who makes pottery that fills our home with wonder and gives heart to our meals.  

and

reading the first pages of The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin.

savoring these words that pick my heart up off the ground.

I want to make art. I want to experience it. I want to live artfully. I don’t want to argue about it. I have never asked, “Is it art?” Instead, I ask, “Does it have soul?” Is it alive? Do I see something of the artist within? Does it move me? Does it make me think? Does it challenge me? Does it enrich my human experience? That is enough for me. There’s good art, bad art, modern art, fine art. Again, stacked against the things that make my life fuller, these don’t make the cut, nor do they make my photographs more compelling. –David duChemin

making a step in a new direction. no longer on the borderline, but fully in. no turning back now.

celebrating humanity and soul with these images.

and this is my favorite photograph, the one that is about something . . . powerful in the way it explores the relationship between the potter and his clay, and perhaps something larger about the way we shape our lives or permit them to be shaped by external forces.

Bonny, the dog

As I drove through the city docks area, I spotted two older gentlemen sitting on the tailgate of a truck, drinking their morning coffee, engaged in a lively conversation. Between the two men sat a little dog with his head turning from one man to other as though listening to the conversation. I quickly parked my car, already imagining the picture I might take. I’d try to frame the shot to include just the legs and lower body of the men on the tailgate with my focus on that sweet little dog.

As so often happens, in the two minutes it took to park and get out of my car, the scene changed. The men finished their coffee and stood to head their separate ways. I walked up and commented on the distinctive dog, and his owner just lit up with pride. He bragged on “Bonny”  – how she always obeyed him, seldom barked, had never bitten anyone and was a joyful companion. I asked if I might take her picture. And just like that he reached down and held Bonny up, by her front paws. This pose was not at all what I had in mind, but still it was endearingly familiar. This is the same way a parent reaches down to help a toddler take his first steps or often to get him to hold still for a picture.

These frozen moments capture not only the passion we can have for dogs, but also the fleeting transience of life: dogs’ lives are poignantly short – so too are people’s.

It's not about the photograph

I admire and respect photographers who take family portraits. I know first-hand the skill, planning, practice and devotion that such a task requires – because I tried it. The process of trying was good for me because it helped me to determine what I do not want to do.

I’ve long struggled with how to describe the kind of photography I practice – and I’m not the only one.

I read an interesting journal entry, Turn It Upside Down, by Kim Manley Ort, and she asks thoughtful questions.

Why do I take pictures?

“When I experience a connection with something in the moment just as it is, it reveals something universal that resonates deep inside. It’s magical. It changes me and the way I see. It cracks me open and I see how everything (including me) belongs. I continue learning and growing through my encounters.”

Why am I drawn to my camera as a companion?

“My mission in life is to fully experience and embrace life with my whole self – mind, body, and heart. I’ve found that my camera helps me to do this. While sometimes the camera can serve to distance ourselves from the world, and it’s important to know when this is happening, it can also help us to be more courageous – visit new places, meet new people, and connect in new ways.”

Kim goes on to say . . .

“In other words, it’s not about the photograph so much as it is about the experience and the connection. It’s more even than being mindful. It’s actively engaging with the world around me, exactly as it is.”

And Angie Dornier, of the inspirational collective ViewFinders, asks, Do you use your camera as a shield?

“I realize now, more than ever, how I really do use my camera as a shield.  It helps me gather the courage to walk into a room of strangers.  It covers my face as the tears well up at my son’s 5th grade ceremony.  It silences the loud voice at kids sporting events when I feel the urge to “help” the coaches.  It gives me a job at volunteer events so that I feel useful, even if I couldn’t be part of the planning and preparation.”

I’m still working through my own answers to questions like these. I am reassured by my uncertainty, open to trial and error, and steadfast in my commitment to make the pictures that are meant for me.

These photographs of my friend, Sarah, and her sweet little girl were not planned or prompted. I stopped by to visit while running errands and snapped a few frames on the spur-of-the-moment . . . mother and daughter sitting in the doorway and the peach tree in the garden. And every single view melts my heart. I can scarcely believe how blessed I am to witness human interaction in this way, and I love every minute.

Art in the Neighborhood

After my morning exercise, I often stop by one of our local coffee shops in Fredericksburg’s historic district. I enjoy my coffee, read and/or write, and plan my day. I am amazed at how many ideas come to me by way of this daily ritual. After my coffee break, I often take a photo walk and even though I confine my walk to a few blocks, round and round, I most always find some picture . . . waiting for me . . . as a gift.

On the first Friday of each month, Fredericksburg hosts an art walk. The town is vibrant on these evenings. For June’s First Friday, Dave and I stopped by 25 30 Espresso, the little community coffee house, just passed the train tracks in the Darbytown neighborhood. We were excited to check out their advertised pairing of coffee and art by Pete Morelewicz.

We were not disappointed. The pairing of smooth cheesecake topped with rich dark chocolate and Pete’s inventive prints made for the perfect date night. I purchased a few of Pete’s original letterpress cards, featuring local landmarks, designed to mimic postage stamps. With the kindness that comes from a generous heart, Pete offered one of his prints for a giveaway. I took a chance, dropping my ticket in the jar.

Happy news! I won the framed print!  Holding the print, Afternoon Fred, in my hands, I was most impressed by Pete’s ability to make a scene so familiar seem new and fresh – as though I was seeing the view from the Chatham Bridge for the first time. Inspired by Pete’s way of seeing, I took my morning walk, opening my eyes wide.

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” –Rachel Carson

Many thanks to Maureen and her team at 2530 Espresso and to Pete for bringing coffee, friends, and art to my world – all in good measure.

My Best Days

This is how I spend my best days, lost in the wonder of every day routines and places. It feels good to tend to these parts of myself –parts that do not concern themselves with cooking or errands or accomplishing things with purpose. In these little in-between spaces of time, I am content just being, and it shows in my work.

Here comes the sun, little darling

It wouldn't feel like summer without Music on the Steps at the library.

Sultry rhythm & blues and classic rock.

Bubbles blowing in the summer breeze just like on the Lawrence Welk Show of days gone by.

Dancing and visiting and bare feet tapping.

Setting sun from orange and gold to soft shade.

A picture-perfect almost-summer evening.

Many thanks to our library for sponsoring free community concerts and to the Lafayette Station Band for donating their time and talents to kick off the season.

Here comes the sun, little darling.

You've Got Mail

It’s my pleasure to introduce my letter-writing friend, Miss Polly.

I met my pen pal, Miss Polly, by way of Uppercase magazine when my photographs were published in the issue that featured postage stamps as tiny works of art (Issue 26: July-August-September 2015).  We’ve been sending letters back and forth ever since.

A friendship developed through letters is one that grows slowly with deep roots.

If you’ve stopped sending letters and cards in favor of emails or texts, you’re missing out. You can Kindle Your Letter-Writing Fire by reading and learning about some of Miss Polly’s favorite letter-writing tools and tips for correspondence.   

As I dropped my cards and letters in the mail slot, I tried to take a picture or two. It’s not easy to deposit the mail with one hand and take a photograph with the other hand. My arms are too short! A lady driving up to the mailbox to post her letters noticed what I was trying to accomplish and shouted out, “Take my picture. I’ve gotta pay these bills or else!”

To All – With Love

For some people church can be dangerous place. More accurately, the people within a church can harm each other, often out of arrogance or pride or ignorance, but just as often from a place of well-meaning. It is not faith I am speaking of, but rather, the organization and activities of religion.

For a person, perhaps especially a woman, the church can feel not only like a place of sanctuary and salvation, but also one of obligation and suffering. As a little girl, I learned the Ten Commandments and took every one to heart. I memorized the Golden Rule and made sure to treat others with every kindness, even at my own expense. I attended a club for little girls called the Sunbeams. We sang a sweet and simple song that stays with me even to this day.

So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin.
Smilers never lose and frowners never win.
So let the sun shine in, face it with a grin
Open up your heart and let the sun shine in.

And so the die was cast for this little girl to become a nice girl with a permanent smile on her face, and for this nice girl to grow into a helpful woman with a slow and simmering anger. In this complicated sea of emotion, I felt broken. I recognized that true kindness comes from an overflowing abundance of love, not from duty or fear or shame or guilt.

Going to church once played a significant role in my life. As a good wife and mother, I felt it was my responsibility to see to it that my children were raised with Christian faith. I taught Sunday school and volunteered to help in many of the church’s ministries. At every turn, I felt as though I had no choice, but to help, and take care, and tend. When, at age 44, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the first thought I had was one of relief. “Thank goodness, I have a reason to excuse myself from my teaching Sunday school.”

Resentment took hold. I wondered if I had used up my allotment of goodness and kindness in this life. But, of course, this was not so. The journey has been long and often arduous to arrive at this place where faith is a living, breathing part of me, a constant companion. In faith I find solace and strength, self-love and forgiveness.

I am not sure if I will ever return to church, but I am reassured to know.

Church is Open. To all – With love.