2018: 'Take your broken heart, make it into art'

Where to begin with 2018? It was, without a doubt, the hardest year of my life, starting with the unexpected death of my dad in January and followed by the infinite ripples outward from that moment.

But alongside the grief, pain, shock, sadness, fear, frustration and anger, there have been joy and love and kindness and hilarity and understanding and sympathy and so much more. Sometimes all at the same time.

Which brings me to the rainbow.

One of the first photos I took with my new lens and camera in February. Made the snow look magical with #nofilter.

One of the first photos I took with my new lens and camera in February. Made the snow look magical with #nofilter.

It was February, and I was driving home from Dallas (the Oregon one) after visiting my favorite camera shop, Focal Point. I’d been purchasing a new lens, and the woman helping me said how lucky I was to be getting this particular piece of equipment, that I’d be very happy with it. I started crying, explaining that I was actually using some inheritance money for it and that my dad had recently passed and that it all just felt so weird. She teared up too and told me he’d support the purchase knowing that it brought me happiness. I said he was one of my biggest fans. We agreed that he’d be with me whenever I used it to make pictures.

Minutes later, driving home, I spotted a rainbow. It brought a smile to my face, but it turned to wonderment as the strangest thing happened. I kept expecting it to do that thing where you go around a curve and the rainbow disappears or disintegrates or the angles of refraction just aren’t right anymore. Instead I just got closer and closer and closer to it, until what seemed to be the end of the rainbow was right alongside me as I drove. It stayed that way for the entire drive toward and across the Marion Street Bridge. Then it finally dissipated, but the memory stuck with me. I would have loved to tell Dad about it, but it made me think, maybe he’s here with me after all.

Since then, when I’ve been shooting with that lens (and my replacement camera), I’ve felt him there, cheering me on as I’m making my art. Lucky for me and my heart, my chances to create and capture have been many this year.

First, the b’nai mitzvah! Being Judaism-adjacent for the past couple of decades thanks to Judah, I’ve been to several such ceremonies. I have even photographed a handful over the years. But this year, our synagogue’s b’nai mitzvah class was huge, by Salem standards, and I ended up photographing five over the past nine months.

They’ve quickly become one of my favorite events. Seeing these kids’ hard work come to fruition as they lead services, chant Torah, deliver speeches regardless of their level of nerves and are the subject of speeches by their family … it’s just magic. And in a tough year marked by loss, it’s been glorious to see families celebrating and recognizing one another while everyone is still around (i.e., not at a memorial service).

Let’s not fail to note that I’ve gotten really good at shooting and bawling simultaneously. These events have become part of my grief process, both due to bearing witness to parents showering their children with love and joy and pride, and due to the Mourner’s Kaddish.

As I already mentioned, I’ve been Judaism-adjacent for a long time. But my dad’s passing was my first loss since being a synagogue member, so it was the first time a direct family member of mine made the list read before the prayer recognizing those who have had a loss in the past year or who are marking the yahrzeit of a prior loss.

I was shooting Jack’s bar mitzvah in March when I heard my dad’s name read from the bima for the first time, and I was immediately overcome. I stood, I cried, I said his name, I took it all in as we recited the prayer, and I cried through the rest of the service, even as I kept documenting.

During Isabel’s bat mitzvah, I thought I was a little more prepared, but the Mourner’s Kaddish was preceded by a speech by a father to a daughter that just grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. Cried through the rest of that one too.

His memory and some tears accompanied me through the other ceremonies this year, but I kept it slightly more together. Still, I felt him with me as I peered through my lens, as we recited the prayer, as I bore witness to and documented these families’ joy.

Speaking of joy, I had often talked with my dad about wanting to shoot a wedding someday. I’d shot *at* weddings a couple of times (always staying out of the way of the pro, of course), but never as the hired photographer.

This year, that wish came true, and I had the privilege of photographing four weddings, all so different, all so beautiful, and all perfect reflections of the couples.

In the spring, there was Forrest and Brena’s lovely short ceremony with family and then a party for friends.

In midsummer, Mari and Dan exchanged vows at the Reed Opera House in a gorgeous ceremony with some of the most hilarious and sweet toasts I’ve ever heard and a super fun reception.

On a beautiful September morning, Pam and Dan (different Dan!) stood before their friends and family in the gazebo at Keizer City Hall and pledged their love to each other.

And in August, my sister Kate married Russell at the headwaters of the Metolius River in a perfect window of clarity during a day of smoke and sprinkling rain.

How did I get so lucky to be the person documenting all these wonderful days?

That doesn’t even encompass the many wonderful family shoots (including the Bakkens for the sixth consecutive year and the new baby of one of my dearest friends) and two fun fall senior photo shoots and a couple of corporate head-shot sessions … and let’s not forget the sandwich on the side of a bus!


“Take your broken heart, make it into art.” That’s a Carrie Fisher quote that has been my guiding light of late. Making photographs for all these amazing people has nourished my creative spirit during this challenging year.

Thank you to all who entrusted me with this task in 2018 (and before!), and may we all find moments of joy to carry with us through 2019.

The root of the problem

To understand why today was funny and sad and weird, you'd have to know how much I hate the dentist. I mean, not the people themselves, but the whole experience. It's a long several stories involving knocking out my baby front teeth, elementary school brace face encountering a metal pole, an anxiety attack while on nitrous oxide for the only time, and a root canal where the root was removed before it was totally numb and while I was in the throes of postpartum hormones. Even the short version is long.

To understand why today was funny and sad and weird, you'd have to know that my dad, a pharmacist, was my go-to for any health-related situation. I talked to him about the weirdest stuff -- and the most mundane -- and when I was panicky about something (like, say, the dentist), he was good at calming me down.

So today I ended up with a decision: Get an appointment for a much-needed root canal in a month or literally RIGHT NOW. Given how distressed people had looked after seeing me get hit with a pain wave after a cold drink or a hot dinner, I knew the latter was the right choice. That was good for another reason: less time to get worked up about it.

I got there as fast as I could and got processed and got started with the appointment. After getting through the anesthesia process*, the doctor got down to business. I soon realized that things had changed since my last root canal: The doctor isolated the tooth he was working on with a dental dam (which I had only heard about prior in a VERY different context), which kept all the spray and materials and uhhh tooth pieces? away from the rest of my mouth, which made me realize much of my dental anxiety is claustrophobia caused by trying to keep all that away from my throat. The point being: I actually relaxed. 

They had music playing, and unable to talk or even really grunt to participate in a one-sided conversation, I closed my eyes and focused on the tunes instead. About two-thirds of the way through, I heard a riff, and my eyes went wide and began to well up. It was the beginning of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." Immediately, I thought, this is not going to end well. They'd skipped a couple of other songs (including "Welcome to the Jungle," to my dismay), so I knew that was an option. 

I started gesticulating. 

"Everything OK?"

Me: *pointing toward speaker* "TONG"

Them: "Oh, the music? Uhhhh, louder?"

Me: "No! ... *twirls finger* "KIP? NEX TONG?"

Them: "Uhhhh, oh! Skip this song?"

Me: *nods*

Them: ...

Me: "THAD!"

Also me: *tears leaking out of the corners of my eyes*

The doctor, kind of realizing what's going on and wanting to break the tension, cracked a joke: "[Assistant] gets like that too, but it's when she hears Pitbull."

I guffawed, as much as a person can guffaw with a doctor elbow-deep in her mouth along with a bite guard and a sheet of plastic. It was about this moment that I realized that because of the angle of my head, the tears that had leaked out of the corners of my eyes were collecting in my ears. Everything suddenly felt so absurd, I started cracking up. They thought I was crying again and then realized I was laughing. They were so confused, which made it more absurd, which made me want to tell my dad about it, which made me sad again, which made me tear up again, which landed more tears collecting in my ears, which made me laugh again. 

So you see, funny and sad and weird. 

I eventually got myself together, and they completed the procedure (some of the least painful, most extensive work I've ever had, truly), and once I could talk again, I explained. Not all this, but some of it. "My dad died a few months ago, and that song ..." *choking up* They got it.

Also, they gave me freshly picked blueberries. 

So today was an experience. I can't tell Dad, so I'm telling you.

Wish you were here.

(*Note: Am I the only one who was 40 and had undergone countless dental procedures before I learned that my heart was racing at all those appointments because of the epinephrine in the shots? Until last year, I thought that was my anxiety. I actually felt better this time knowing that what was happening was chemical and would pass shortly even though it hit me harder than it ever has before.)

Our go-to Instant Pot recipes

OK, so ... last year my Christmakkah present was an Instant Pot. We already had a stovetop pressure cooker that Judah used a ton, but it made me nervous and I didn't use it much. We weren't sure how much use the IP would actually get, but it turns out that we love it. We've used it at least once a week since last November, and often multiple times a day.

Some basics: Easy hard-boiled eggs. Easy overnight steel-cut oats. Every stew that usually tastes better the next day tastes good immediately because pressure. Also, I highly recommend the Facebook community Instant Pot Recipes. It's run by my cousin-in-law Coco Morante, who also has a killer book on the topic that we gifted to several people this year. It's so good. 

So after a year with the Instant Pot, here are some faves:

  • Nom Nom Paleo's Kalua Pork. Yes. Make this.It’s like three ingredients, a couple of hours, and the payoff is fantastic. (Paleo and Whole30 compliant, if that's your thing.)

  • Judah made this Texas-Style Chili con Carne recipe from Serious Eats in the pressure cooker. It. Was. Fabulous. Highly recommend. The hardest part was finding all those chiles at the store. We need to make this again stat.

  • Judah has made of Nom Nom Paleo Bo Kho (though he used chuck instead of short ribs): Another good one.

  • Pulled Pork Adobo from Coco's cookbook is amazing. Not linked, but in the book, the Plum Chile Chicken is also fab.

  • Chicken Bacon Lentil Stew: A fave recent lentil stew recipe.

  • Hasselback Pork Roast from hippressurecooking.com: It's been awhile, but this needs to happen again.

  • Nom Nom Paleo's Braised Kale and Carrots: We have converted numerous people to kale with this recipe. Judah has also made it into a main dish by adding diced smoked chicken and sun-dried tomatoes. 

  • Shredded Italian Beef: Amazing in sandwiches or just as a main dish.

  • Serious Eats' Chicken Chile Verde: Easy. Good. Yes.

  • Butter Chicken: We skipped the almonds and cilantro and added tamarind. This disappeared in minutes.

  • Salsa chicken: Some chicken, a jar of salsa, seal, cook at high pressure 12ish minutes, vent, shred. Eat on sandwiches, atop baked potatoes, on nachos, on salad, by itself. Easy and good.

I'll add more as they come to mind and/or we experiment more!

Some other resources:

Other recipes on the to-try list:





    Sugar-free March is over. Do I get a cookie?

    Earlier this year, inspired by some friends doing the same thing, I decided I was going to try to go sugar-free for March. Well ... kind of. I was going to try to avoid added sugars as much as was feasible, just to prove to myself that I could do it -- and also as an experiment. (Fruit and naturally occurring sugars in other foods were 100 percent OK, and Judah still added a touch of honey and molasses to the fruit/veggie/omegas/Vitamin D smoothies he makes most mornings.)

    It's been an interesting 31 days. 

    The first thing I noticed was that sugar is in damn near everything. I mean, I knew that, but it was a different experience when I started actually looking at the labels. Nearly every bread product, every bar (Luna, Lara, Kind -- stuff I'd keep in my purse for snacks), every sauce, every dressing. Everything. So that was an eye-opening experience. 

    The thing I was trying to test myself on the most was my on-again, off-again relationship with soda and my propensity to talk myself into desserts and other treats, instead of out of them. The second major lesson of this month is that, even though we bring very few sugary treats into the house, I am faced with them on a regular basis nonetheless: birthday cupcakes, cake, three kinds of cookies at work! Sharing a dessert at a family event! Free cookie for the kids at the grocery store -- so why don't I get one too? My latest temptation: the Jelly Belly dispenser at the office. It's not as pervasive as the "a few grams here, a few grams there" situation in every other food, but I am much more tempted by cake and cookies than salad dressing (you know, like most people).

    So how did I do? Some confessions: I had one Hamantaschen (the cookies typically made to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim) after 1) reading about them and 2) smelling the hundreds of them baked for a synagogue fundraiser. But that was a planned indulgence, and a limited one. Last week, I was at OMSI and I discovered that they carried locally made macarons. I had not even *seen* a macaron since we moved, and they are small, so I purchased one. And I savored it greatly. I had one very strange night at work where I got hives and then took two antihistamines, which made me super woozy. Nothing else was helping, and I had to get through the shift, so I went to my old standby and bought a can of Coke. I sipped it for a while until I did start to feel a little better -- maybe a quarter or a third, and I trashed the rest. Also, while I replaced most of my non-water-drinking with unsweetened iced tea (it turns out it's SO GOOD!), I did have kombucha (fermented tea) a couple of times a week. But that was also planned. Here and there, I am sure I had sauces that had some sugar when I was at a restaurant and couldn't check, but overall, I think I did pretty well.

    What are my takeaways? First off, I *can* say no to sugar when I put my mind to it. There were some tough situations -- brunch at the Original Pancake House, I didn't have a single bite of pancakes, even though I was surrounded. The day I had the single hamantaschen, there were actually two more kinds of cookies going around the office. Under other circumstances, I'm sure I would have had some of that, too. I didn't really crave Coke or other soda very much. I also discovered that plain soda water, which I was drinking to help with my carbonation craving, makes me feel terrible. So back to tea and water it is! 

    What happens next? I am not giving up sugar for good. I guaran-damn-tee you that tomorrow, I am having a salted caramel chocolate chip cookie from Great Harvest. That is happening.

    But I am taking my new awareness of my ability to say "no" most of the time and making that my default when faced with dessert. I will keep on with my unsweetened iced tea. I will eat some more of the yummy things I discovered when I was searching for sugar-free options. (E.g., broccoli slaw, pomegranate seeds, balsamic vinegar and olive oil is an amazing salad. Jicama strips are good with dip or without. Roasted beets are like candy! Almonds have a nice natural sweetness that's easier to notice when you're not popping jelly beans in the same hour.) I'll keep experimenting with eating clean, meal and snack planning, and trying new things. 

    But first, hand me my cookie.

    My kingdom for the chance to say thank you

    It’s March 12, 2012, Judah’s first week home after getting back from Afghanistan. We’re at H-Mart, because how better to re-acclimate yourself to the U.S. than wandering around the market where whole aisles of things are marked in languages other than English? 

    My cell phone rings. It’s Tim, wanting to check in about my return to work in a few weeks. And then he mentions: “Mary had an idea. She really enjoyed your photos of Judah meeting Aaron and reuniting with Isaac and was wondering if you’d consider writing a story about it.”

    I said, “Oh, really? Um, sure. I’d been thinking about pitching something for the magazine maybe. Is that what you guys were thinking?”

    “I’m pretty sure she’s thinking for the front page.”

    Whoa. Really? I felt like I had something to say about my experiences having a baby while Judah was far away but still connected via technology, but I wasn’t sure how to make it play in the news section.

    But Mary was sure. Before my official return to work, I stopped by the newsroom to introduce Aaron around and say hi and I stopped in Mary’s office. I talked to her for a while about how I should approach it. “Just tell your story,” she told me. “The rest will work itself out.”

    So I left. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. And a little more after that. And ended up dropping a hefty 60+-inch draft onto my editors’ metaphorical desks upon my return to the office.

    With some tweaks, some restructuring, a rewrite, a melding of the two versions, and a subtraction of about 25 inches of copy, thanks to the work of several editors … lo and behold, my story really did land on the front page of The Sun the Sunday before the Fourth of July.

    I’ve been thinking about how this all came to pass today, since I found out the essay garnered an award from the MDDC Press Association -- my first and, since I’m now outside the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. purview with our move to Oregon, my last.

    Mary believed in me, and she made me believe that I could tell my family’s story and that people would care and relate and, hopefully, not find it too self-indulgent. (I do joke and call myself a professional oversharer sometimes, though.)

    Thanks to her, I have this record of a period of my life that would otherwise start to fall victim to murky memory (the newborn stage has that tendency), and I got to share that with our readers. And my children will also have the longer, detailed story of that unique time in their lives, in the form of that bulky first draft.

    That’s only the beginning. Working with Mary -- first as a slot to her section editor, then as a section editor to her department head, then as a content editor to her editor-in-chief -- informed every bit of my career at The Sun. Everything she worked on was better because she set high expectations for herself -- and we, in turn, for ourselves. She was creative, brilliant, hilarious, kind, generous.

    I’m so grateful for my time with her, so angry that her time was cut so short. I just wish I could tell her thank you. For everything.

    Emily, Mary, me, Cheryl, Lori and Molly at Cheryl's goodbye party in, can it be, 2003?

    Emily, Mary, me, Cheryl, Lori and Molly at Cheryl's goodbye party in, can it be, 2003?

    Fun project with the kids ... or, you know, whoever

    Note: Maybe I was influenced by this "Stop Fakebooking" blog post, even though I actually found it extremely irritating. I mean, I could have tossed this up on Pinterest as a fun project and left it at that. But that's not what happened. So here you go:

    I'm not going to lie: Since our cross-country move a few weeks ago, I've felt like something of a stay-at-home mom fail.

    Four days after we got here, we started researching preschools and daycares, which didn't exactly match up with my expectations of how things would be once I wasn't working at my extremely busy newspaper job of almost 14 years.

    But the 4-year-old, who had been in full-time daycare since he was 7 months old, was begging to go back to school, and frankly, I was already worrying that he was going to lose his school routine, and possibly some of his reading and writing skills, before starting kindergarten this fall.

    And if I'm going to launch my photography business here and do freelance work as planned, clearly, I'll need time for that. But still. I thought we'd last at least a week.

    Nonetheless, the kiddos started their part-time program last week, and they love it. (And hey, I started on my research and wrote a couple of freelance articles, so the plan is working, right?)

    But it is part-time, so yesterday, one of their home days, I thought we'd have a ton of fun -- the park since it was sunny, some drawing, some reading, maybe a picnic ... the possibilities were endless.

    Until the 4-year-old woke up with a serious case of boundary busting. I want to watch another showwwwww! I want another snaaaaaack! I don’t want to go outsiiiiiiiiiide! I just want to be by myselllllllllf!

    I mean, in a way, I can hardly blame him: His routine that's lasted most of his life has been completely undone. He just left all his friends. We're in a new and unfamiliar house. I'd be freaking out, too. But still, no.

    The last straw was when my mom came over, and he was stomping around saying he wanted her to leave. Nuh-uh. Not OK.

    The plan changed: Baby would stay with my mom, and I'd take the boy out for some one-on-one time. Stat. But first, I'd have to install the gargantuan car seat in my mom's car, during which I bashed myself in the side of the head with it  -- hard -- and burst into tears of pain, a little, but frustration mostly. Argh.

    I don't know if it was seeing me frustrated too that turned him around, but the kiddo kind of got it back together at that point. Before we left, he told my mom that actually, he wanted her to come over every day, and he was excited about our outing.

    We had fun walking around the grocery store and getting our bearings before picking out our lunch. He was a total sweetheart while we were eating, bursting with questions and telling me all about his new school, his energy now bubbling out positively instead of negatively. Ahhhh, better.

    Walking through the produce section, I caught sight of some positively gorgeous rainbow carrots. "Look at these!" I told him. "Did you even know carrots came in this many colors?" He was fascinated, and I had a brainstorm. We'd get them and cut them up and have a taste test -- a scientific experiment, if you will. Brilliant!

    Later, at home, I asked if he wanted to help me clean them up, and he said no thanks. So I washed them and scraped them. When I cut open the purple carrot, I saw it was pale orange in the middle. "Hey, check this out! Did you know it was going to be different colors in the center? Cool, huh?" Neat, Mom. (Whatever, Mom.) Then I cut them into sticks and offered them up for the taste test -- and got another no thank you.

    Wind out of my sails, I started mindlessly slicing the carrots into rounds and before I realized what I was doing, I'd arranged them into a pattern on the cutting board.

    "Hey, that's cool," I thought. "Almost like an art project you'd do with your kid. If your kid wanted to participate."

    He later tried a few of the carrots, and the rest went into the night's beef stew. And I don't know, the mere creative act of making something pretty out of something unexpected made me happy, even if it didn't meet my initial "do something creative with the kids" expectation.

    We're figuring this being-at-home stuff out together, even if it's only part-time. Together was kind of the point, right?


    Art project idea that might work out for you (even though it didn’t for me):

    Get a bunch of rainbow carrots, or a couple each of purple, yellow, red-orange and orange. Clean and slice into rounds. See what kind of patterns you can make with all the colors. Then eat! (For the record, they tasted mostly the same, so my taste-test idea was kind of a bust. You’re welcome.)

    Memories or memory card? Why not both?

    A year ago today, my husband returned from Afghanistan and was reunited with our son Isaac, then 3, and met our newborn, Aaron.

    In that moment, I faced a familiar struggle: Be in the moment or document the moment?

    Logistics won out, at least at first. After Judah stepped off the bus, I hung back with Aaron and let Isaac be the first to welcome his dad home. Holding the baby, I couldn’t really handle the camera, so I just stood there and soaked it in as the two of them apprised each other and then hugged.

    Then Judah and I locked eyes and I said something silly like, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” I handed Aaron to Judah and just watched them look at each other. Aaron, nearly 10 weeks old, gazed at his dad, then started crying. Despite my best efforts, the bus had arrived at mealtime. I passed over a bottle and let Judah take over feeding duties for a few minutes until Aaron calmed down. He didn’t want to let go, and besides, it was his turn.

    Then, hands unexpectedly free, I just couldn’t resist documenting the scene that was unfolding before me and committed a few images to my memory card, not just my memory.

    Isaac ran around my legs as I captured the picture of Judah in uniform, nuzzling Aaron’s forehead, with Aaron giving a tiny, contented smile.

    It’s probably the most meaningful photograph I’ve taken to date, which made me realize that for me, documenting the moment is part of being in the moment. It adds to the experience; it doesn’t distract, doesn’t detract. The lesson instead is that when I can’t manage the camera, I will be there completely and take it all in, rather than worrying about missing the shot.

    I might not have a canvas print of Judah and Isaac’s reunion, but it’s seared on my memory all the same.

    Note: Adapted from a draft of this essay.

    New adventures await

    When my now-husband and I moved out to the East Coast in 1999, we were convinced it would be temporary. A couple of years, maybe a couple more, but after that, we'd be headed somewhere else. For sure. No doubt.

    I guess nearly 14 years counts as temporary somewhere. But finally we are headed somewhere else -- back home to Oregon, to be near our families and back in the part of the world we're so passionate about.

    So in a month or so, we'll be all packed up (or at least, we'd better be!) and off to new horizons.

    We can't wait.