Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.


Green Bee

Today is overcast. It’s maybe the second or third overcast day we’ve had this summer, and it’s a pleasant break from the heat here in the Portland, Oregon area. Besides being refreshing, an overcast day is perfect for capturing photos. I’m not an experienced photographer, but I have learned that much. The colors are vivid and details clearer than on a bright, sunny day.

So, with the kids playing peacefully with their new-to-us basketball hoop in the driveway (thanks to our neighbors’ decision to clean out the leftovers of their now-grown son’s childhood), I wandered across the yard to take a closer look at some bull thistles growing against the fence near our raspberries. They’re on the far side of the fence, in a neighbor’s hay field, making them near-impossible to uproot. But they are beautiful nonetheless, if I set aside mild concern for the wellbeing of our raspberries.

I snapped a few photos with the camera, and was ready to move on to meander through the flower beds looking for photogenic subjects. As I turned to leave, a flash of brilliant color caught my eye. I leaned in for a closer look. It was an insect. Bee-shaped and bee-sized. Acting bee-like as well, burrowing down into the flower in search of nectar and pollen. But this bee was a vivid, iridescent green usually reserved for exotic tropical creatures and hummingbirds.

Of course, I aimed the camera. I got in two clicks before the bee darted off. Naturally, both shots were so blurry that the insect was indistinguishable. But now I’m on the hunt. I’m going to be stalking that thistle, waiting for that bee to return so I can capture it on camera.  I looked it up and learned that it’s a halictid bee, probably in the genus agapostemon. Here’s a beautiful specimen not, alas, photographed by me. I took it from the site, which has detailed information about insects and spiders.

Halictid Bee - Agapostemon splendens, from
Halictid Bee – Agapostemon splendens, from

Oh, and the peacefully-playing kids? That axiom “Silence is golden, unless you have a toddler…then silence is very, very suspicious” is one I have never managed to take to heart no matter how many times it’s proven to be true. Here’s what my quiet kids were doing while I was happily snapping photos:

Dust bath, anyone?
Dust bath, anyone?

It’s Not National Geographic Material, But…

I was fifteen when my dad gave me my first camera. I was speechless with delight — I remember the sensation of actually gasping for breath in surprise and joy. Gifts were rare in our family: we eschewed Christmas, birthdays, and worldly possessions, so a spontaneous gift like this was even more meaningful than it might have been for an ordinary kid.

My father has always had a gift for both photography and drawing, sometimes combining them by making sketches and even embroidery patterns based on the photos he takes. He has his camera with him nearly everywhere he goes. My dad and his camera were fixtures in my childhood and especially in my teens, when his interest in “real” photography took off. On long road trips with my mom, they periodically stop so my dad can photograph scenery or flowers while my mom stretches her legs. When he visited us in Alaska, he would go on early-morning drives to capture shots of things he’d seen as we drove around the Anchorage area: the tidal flats, a field of blue-flags (also known as wild irises), a train running between the inlet and the mountains. He’ll sit quietly while family visits, unobtrusively shooting photo after photo of interactions and games. He’s never published his photos, unlike my uncle (his brother), who also loves nature and photography, and shares his photos on a website he calls Wild Sky Photo. He just loves taking the pictures. I think that camera was a way for us to connect, to share a passion.

It was the night before a high school trip that my dad gave me the camera. Our entire high school — all ten of us — were traveling from our group of three small religious communes in Northwest Ontario to a collection of communes in British Columbia. We’d been preparing for months with individual, original, inspirational speeches, and practicing two or three new songs. We would provide the church services as we visited the northern groups. That was something of a tradition in our network of communes — being prepared to share inspirational messages, but especially sharing music. Singing was integral to our way of life, and somebody was always writing or discovering a new song. It was just considered a courtesy to share it with other groups whenever you traveled.

But the real highlight, to us, was the road trip. Ten kids in two vans. Music of our own choosing — and someone was sure to bring along some carefully selected secular music, and if we were absolutely angelic, perhaps we could convince our chaperones to allow us to play it as we rode along. Then there was the hotel stop along the way — giant sleepovers aren’t any less fun when you’re being raised as a highly conservative, long-skirted, Bible-studying commune dweller. The frosting on the road-trip cake was the visits with people we only saw rarely. My cousins and I were excited to see another set of cousins on one of the British Columbia communes, but there were other friends and acquaintances as well, plus who knew how many new friends.

And I photographed it all. I used up all the film my dad had given me by the end of the second day, and had to buy more at gas stations and convenience stores along the way. I snapped photos of the scenery. Of pillow fights. Of friends hugging. Teens sleeping, puppy-piled in the vans. Volley-ball games, girls still in their long, awkward skirts. Campfire sing-alongs. I overcame my habitual shyness to walk right up to people I barely knew so as to frame them better for shots. My viewfinder became my key, allowing me to break through crippling terror of crowds and strangers.

I still have most of those photos. They aren’t good ones. I knew nothing at all about photography, and my camera was a basic point-and-shoot model. No zoom, no focus. Most of the pictures are blurred. Sometimes you can’t really tell who’s in the photos or what’s happening. But there were some gems. Going through them a few years ago, I was surprised to find a picture of my sister-in-law’s husband in Renaissance costume, playing the piano and singing in an informal rehearsal for a show. This was about four years before I met my husband, and I hadn’t even known the young man’s name — I just had been struck by the picture I saw and wanted to keep the memory.

These days I use a beautiful silver Canon, a digital camera that has a zoom lens and a second, long lens that can be interchanged. I still don’t know much about photography. But I’ve learned a few things along the way, and now I find joy in photographing my children and garden. Lately I’ve been learning to use the long lens. It’s proven to be a steep learning curve for me. It reminds me of the slow, stumbling trial-and-error experience with that first little camera. Most of my photos of the birds at our feeder are a little blurred, often badly lit or poorly framed. I still save some of them as a learning reference, just like we save our preschoolers’ early writing attempts.

Now, when I look through photos on my computer or phone as I’m preparing to edit and choose some to share with family on Facebook, I find myself thinking of my dad and his role as a recorder of my childhood. It’s a good role, I think, and one that I’m happy and proud to be carrying on in my own little family. I’m not a photographer; this isn’t a photography blog. But still, I find an unexpected peace in freezing those moments of my children playing, a perfect bloom, a bird on a branch, even a plate of good food. I delete more photos than I keep. I miss more shots than I take. I don’t know how to do some of the techniques I see from trained and experienced photographers. But those photos I do take and keep are treasures to me.

And here, just because today I’m thinking about photographs and family and treasures, are a few photos of my favorite treasures: my kids.

Exhibit A: Sofia’s 11-month photo shoot. We’ve done this every month since she was born. My eventual goal is to collect one from each month of her first year into a collage frame for her room. We did this for Niko, too. He’s four. No collage frame yet. Maybe some day…

Exhibit B: My adventurous boy, later the same day as Sofia’s photo shoot. He wanted to sit on top of the well, just like he had a month before when Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography came to photograph our family. I agreed — but only if he let me take his picture. Later, he decided to gather some wood to take inside. The power went out the next day in an ice storm, so I ended up being thankful for his impulse.

Exhibit C: These are the first shots I’ve ever taken with a long lens. Please remember that I don’t work for National Geographic. And I’m just learning. But still, I’m pretty darn proud of these fuzzy photos.