Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Go, Clara, Go!

Note: Roll over the photos in the post with your mouse to see the unedited, straight-out-of-the-camera version of the shots. 

I reread my recent blog post about lacking photography inspiration and in it I was such a whiny baby! Winter is ugly, I'm so uninspired, blah, blah, blah. The fact is that I'm surrounded by inspiring things if I'd just get up and do something about it.

This winter had been unseasonably warm, the rye grass that Eric top-seeded our lawn with is lush and green, and my pansies are blooming beautifully.

I also have 4 precious children who, in my so very unbiased opinion, make lovely photography subjects.

So, no more whining. Just doing.


Clara decided she was ready to conquer the scooter the other day.

She really struggled with it at first. However, it was so fun to watch her determination! She had to give the scooter a good talking to, but this little girl would not give up!

Within just a few minutes she was off and rolling and so very delighted with herself.

Since I have lots of these pictures of her to share, I'll throw out a few photography tips as we go.

Objects in the foreground create a nice sense of depth as in the previous picture.

When your subject is moving, it's a good idea to leave visual room in your photo for your subject to move through. Meaning, if she could actually move in the photo, there should be room in front of her to allow for that movement. In the photo above, there is not a lot of room in front of her, but there is more than in the photo below.

This photo (above) seems cramped and Clara looks much more confined than she did in the previous photo. The sense of motion has been lost.

This next photo is much better. Clara has plenty of room in front of her to ride on through the frame.

Now for a photo-shoot prep tip: Comb your daughter's hair, for goodness' sake! That scraggly hair is now captured for all eternity! (But, otherwise, I really like this next photo. Her body language is so focused and I love the sunshine in the trees in the background.)

Notice that I again left plenty of visual room in front of her to preserve the sense of movement.

Try to find different angles and perspectives. You don't always have to see your subject's face to get a good photo.

Though, that precious little face definitely deserves some attention of it's own!

I love the light in her hair in this shot. The sun is actually setting to the right of her and she is in the shadow created by our house, but a few rays of sunshine are bouncing off the windows of a house across the street at the left and are back-lighting her perfectly.

As you can see from the rollovers, I make plenty of mistakes. I had to straighten, correct exposure and white balance, remove distracting objects from the background and even clone out the snot from Clara's nose in the last picture. Unfortunately, though, I haven't yet figured out how to photoshop scraggly hair!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"I think you should write." -- Part II

Part I is here.

The crazy thing about this whole idea is: I'm not a writer! In fact, I've always thought writing was one of my weaknesses. I'm the nerdy math and science girl--hence my degree in engineering. Yet, I keep feeling this draw toward writing, this need to learn to express myself through the written word. It's not so much that I have this great talent that I want to share, it's more that learning to write is a journey that I want to embark on. (I just ended that sentence with a preposition. I have so much to learn!) I have this deep need to challenge myself and to learn and grow that I believe endeavoring to learn to write will fulfill.

But, how am I going to learn to write? I don't even know where to start! And, when am I going to do it? I'm a painfully slow writer and can't even attempt it without distraction-free quiet. All of these questions (excuses) have been swirling around in my head for months until I finally voiced them all to Eric. He, of course, had immediate and simple answers to all of them. "You learn to write by doing it," he told me. "So every night, after the kids are all in bed, take thirty minutes and write," he suggested.

Well, it sounds so simple when you put it that way!

So, that's the plan. I have thirty minutes every evening where other responsibilities like laundry or dishes are not allowed to take priority over my writing time, but neither shall frivolous things like facebook, twitter or email. We implemented this plan a few weeks ago and so far it is going well. I'm posting more often on this blog than I have in a very long time and I'm excited that I can be more active on and hopefully grow my blog a bit. I was concerned about being too tired to write in the evening; and, the truth is, most evenings I am tempted to skip it when I'm yawning so ferociously I can hardly see straight. But, I've found that once I force myself to get started, energy seems to come out of nowhere and my brain comes alive. That's exactly what I was hoping for and the entire reason for starting this project!

I also told myself that I need to include a picture with every post to give myself a little encouragement to pick up my camera. I don't know if that part of the plan will continue, mainly because of posts like this one. I don't know if I want to take the time to compose, shoot and edit a picture that exemplifies the theme of "I think you should write." Though it does make me think of an image with a moleskin notebook and a nice black ink pen sitting open near a paned window with soft early morning light pouring in making the fresh, clean pages glow. Oh, well. Maybe one day there will be time for such things. 

But, for now, thanks for sharing this journey with me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"I think you should write."

Jen Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register recently published an excellent blog post addressed to mothers of young children. She exhorts mothers to put aside all excuses and to thrive, not at some time in the distant future when all the kids are grown, but now, even though we are stretched by the demands of our vocation. Just because we are mothers does not mean that we should stop being ourselves and caring for ourselves; our lives do not stop when our children's begin.

Over the past few months I have been struggling with some of the same ideas. I feel a yearning to do something more, something beyond the day-to-day demands of my vocation. Then I feel guilty for not feeling completely fulfilled by faithfully tending to the needs of my family. But, I feel this need to create, to do something with the gifts God has given me. But, how am I to do that without taking away from my duties as wife and mother in some way? I want to be true to my vocation. I want to be true to me. Do those two different desires have to be in conflict?

At a recent mom's group meeting at my parish we had a wonderful guest speaker, Cathy Garcia-Pratz. I've mentioned her before in a blog post after a presentation she made to the same mom's group last year. This time her time with us was dedicated to only Q&A. During that session I asked her how she balanced being a wife and mother of ten boys with also being a published author of multiple books and a sought after speaker. She didn't answer directly, but instead she related her journey.

Cathy's passion had always been for teaching. Then she married and the babies came quickly. The first two came about a year apart and I think she said they had their first 5 boys in about 5 or 6 years. During that time she solely focused on her rapidly growing family. But, she also felt a deep need to do something for herself. Since she loved teaching she volunteered to teach preschool religious education classes at church for about an hour a week. Slowly that role grew and she was in charge of the entire preschool program. The time she was able to carve out to pursue her passion was limited, especially since they continued to add more precious little boys to their family; but, with the help of her husband, she made sure it happened.

She didn't begin writing books until her youngest son was in preschool, writing furiously during the three hours, three days a week that the house was quiet. One book eventually led to another and to more and more speaking opportunities. Today her youngest is now a senior in high school and she plans to dedicate even more time to writing once her nest is empty.

What I got out of her story is that when the kids are little, time for personal pursuits may be limited, but they should not be non-existent. Both Cathy and her family suffered when she didn't have her own creative outlet. It was not easy for her to get away, even for an hour a week, but together they did what they had to to make it happen.

I also realized that we mother's do have to be patient. We may not have all the time we desire to fulfill our longings, but it won't always be that way. A day will come when time is in abundance. But, we shouldn't give up on our dreams until the nest is empty. Start now, but in small ways that actually enrich the family (by energizing mom) rather than detract from it (by selfishly hoarding time or energy for personal pursuits).

I've been talking with Eric (repeatedly over many months) about this need I feel for a project, something of my own that excites me and gives me energy. I debated doing something more with photography or volunteering or pursuing a hobby like knitting or cross-stitching. Then Eric hit the nail on the head and named the longing of my heart that I had been afraid to speak out loud out of fear of failure.

"I think you should write."

To be continued.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Propping a shoot

Note: I did the photos in this post a bit differently than normal. If you roll over them with your mouse, you'll see the unedited version of the photos. I love to see before and afters and thought you might enjoy seeing the straight-out-of-the-camera shots as well as the final edits. 

I'm not big on using props for my photography. It's not that I'm against them or anything, they're just not something I think about. I don't stage photo-shoots very often--I prefer candid shots--and even when I do I don't have enough mental energy to come up with creative props.

But, sometimes a simple prop can save the day.

Clara, being a two year old, is constantly on the move. Even with my nice camera I'm having a hard time getting a shot focused and fired off before she's dashed off. She also loves to see the pictures of herself on the back of the camera but hasn't yet figured out that if she's behind the camera I can't actually take a picture of her for her to see.

The other day a momentary flash of inspiration salvaged a photo-shoot that was going nowhere. I picked a pansy from my flower bed and handed it to Clara.

She stopped and studied it.

And even sat down. Alleluia! She stopped moving!

I had an entire 60 seconds to grab some sweet pictures before she completely pulled the flower to pieces and was off again.

Not perfect photos, but candid and simple, full of natural curiosity and joy. My favorite!

Friday, January 20, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday vol. 12

--- 1 ---

I love sun flare, those colorful circles created in a photo when the sun shines directly on the lens.

Sandbox angel

Also that halo of light in the subject's hair when she's back-lit.

You gotta getcha some.

--- 2 ---

Is anyone else loving the new ABC series "Once Upon a Time"? I'm thoroughly enjoying it and the Secrets of Once Upon a Time podcast on sqpn.com by Fr. Roderick makes the whole experience of the show that much better. Fr. Roderick gives background of the fairy tales behind the stories, which of course are loaded with Christian symbolism and morals. Be sure to check it out! And, if you like what you find over at SQPN, please consider making a donation to their giving campaign and support the amazing work that Fr. Roderick is doing evangelizing through new media.

--- 3 ---

So I did it. I set up a Twitter account. I never quite understood Twitter, but so many of my favorite bloggers, authors, and podcasters are active on Twitter and I felt like I was missing out on the fun. So far, I'm really enjoying the format as well as the content. Are there any fabulous people that I really must follow?

--- 4 ---

For her first two years of life Clara hardly spoke. She'd make this buzzing sound--a kind of combination of a buzz and the sound you make when you roll your r's that I can't duplicate--that she used at various pitches and durations to communicate pretty much everything she had to say. But, when her second birthday came around she started to add a few actual words and a lot of babbling. We're starting to think that we have a first extrovert on our hands with the way she goes to town with toddler speak.

I love the way she talks with her hands.

--- 5 ---

We're still struggling with Gustin's potty training. He'll be 5 in May and he still poops in his pants almost daily. He's had some stints of successfully going in the toilet, once for 6 weeks and once for about two months. But, for some reason, he keeps reverting and it's really wearing me down. I don't need any advice at this point (I'm pretty sure I've heard it all at least a half a dozen times each), but I would appreciate some prayers. It's a very frustrating situation for both him and me.

--- 6 ---

I know I've mentioned multiple times how much I love my Kindle, but I have to share another reason why it is so fabulous. For the first time in my life I am successfully reading more than one book at a time. One is usually fiction (at the moment I'm reading Dickens' Bleak House) and then I have another two or three non-fiction books going at the same time (currently How Harry Cast His Spell by John Granger, A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms by Lisa Hendey and Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider). So many non-fiction books aren't meant to be read straight though; they should be consumed one bite at a time, stopping to digest what's been read or to implement a strategy. So, often I would start a non-fiction book, set it down so I could think about it, and then never remember to pick it up again after gets buried on my nightstand or bookshelf. With all my books right there on my Kindle home screen, I'm constantly reminded to go back to those non-fiction books for another morsel.

--- 7 ---

Eric is currently reading The Hobbit to Jonathan, my 9-year-old. It is so fun to see him get excited about a book that I love. He was very resistant to start, mainly because Mommy and Daddy suggested it, but now that they began he is really getting into it. He was also convinced that he would never like the Chronicles of Narnia books or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but of course he loved them once he finally gave them a chance (in other words, we bribed him to let us read him the first chapter). One day he'll realize that when his parents recommend a book they really do know what they are talking about!

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Looking for inspiration

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I've been in a photography slump for months now. Weeks will pass without me even looking my camera's direction. I think it scowled at me when I actually glanced it's way yesterday.

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I think I've identified a few reasons for this slump. It's wintertime now and wintertime in Texas just isn't all that pretty. We get very little fall color, no snow, and in general things are just brown and dead. I love to photograph beautiful things and winter in Texas is not beautiful.

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I also have my hands full. I'm so involved with making sure everyone has their jackets and shoes and sippy cups and I better not forget my purse or phone or the diaper bag and by the time all that is said and done, my camera bag gets left behind.

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And, I might as well fess up--I'm a complete cold wimp. I don't like being cold and I don't like going outside when the temperatures drop below 60. Pathetic, but true.

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But, one thing about this time of year does inspire me to pull out my camera and that is the prolonged, soft late afternoon light (along with a couple of cute sisters playing so sweetly together). Since the sun is much lower on the horizon this time of year, the light is not so harsh and it creates perfect photographic conditions. The solar sweet spot lasts for hours in the afternoon and allows for beautiful back-lit photos. Of course, I only take advantage of that light when the temperatures are warm (silly girl!), as they were when I took these photos over New Year's weekend.

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My camera and I thank you, Lord, for the blessing of a bit of warm sunshine on a lovely winter day.

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Note to self: No more excuses! Take that camera out and capture more of these sweet moments with your kids before they pass you by!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

To do it badly


Sometimes I just can't figure things out. I've been pondering over one particular issue for the past 6 months and I still have not come to any concrete conclusions. Maybe you all will have some insight for me?

This is the scenario. Over the past few years, after we added baby #3 and then baby #4 to our family, I have been struggling more and more to keep up with commitments outside the home. Eric and I place a lot of importance on giving back and serving in our community; and, over the 11 years of our marriage, we have been actively involved in a number of ministries and organizations. But, with the increasing demands of our home and family, I was being stretched rather thin. No longer could I serve competently and effectively. Every job or responsibility I had was only getting my partial attention and I was just doing them badly.

I felt like a failure. I couldn't seem to keep up with the simplest of commitments and each time I failed I got more angry and frustrated. I felt like I was disappointing everyone around me. Being a person who had always excelled in life previously (that is, in school and at work before I had children), I did not like the person I was becoming--someone who was not dependable.

Finally, I decided it was time for me to pull back and step away from all the ministries I loved. It was not an easy decision.

But, time went on and slowly things around our home began to improve. Clara grew from an demanding infant to an independent toddler and stopped nursing. I figured out a few organizational tricks to help run the house more smoothly. I got more rest.

And after a time, I felt I was ready to start serving again.

I was, however, very concerned about over doing it. I really felt called to help with an organization that means a lot to our family and I carefully and prayerfully discerned what role I could commit to, and still do well in that organization, without taking away from my family or making myself into a crazy person. Whatever I did, I didn't want to do it badly.

But, somehow I was assigned two jobs instead of just the one I planned. I protested but no one took my objections seriously. I felt belittled for not willingly taking on the extra work (all the others there were busy, too, they said, and they were willing to sacrifice for the good of the organization) and I came home from that meeting in tears. I didn't want to go back to that place--the place of doing things badly.

I was very angry about the situation for much longer than I would like to admit. At first, I had the very bad attitude that I would do the job, but not do it well, and they would just get the minimum amount of work out of me, just out of spite. It sounds so childish, I know, and I hate to admit it about myself, but it's the truth. Finally, after lots of prayer and discussion with Eric (how he had patience with me endlessly describing how ill-treated I was, I'll never know), I got over myself and decided that if I'm going to do a job then I'm going to try to give it my all. Then I had a big epiphany:

Maybe God was using this situation to humble me and teach me to accept the responsibilities given to me, even if that meant doing them badly.

Would God do that? Give you a task that you very well might fail? For a perfectionist like myself, someone who tends to not start things unless I can see them perfectly through to completion in an organized and timely manner, maybe he was. Maybe my perfectionism is a form of pride--a pride I need to conquer if I'm to become a better version of myself. A version that merits heaven.

So, I'm giving it my best and my best hasn't been good enough a few times. I've failed at some tasks, and it felt awful when I did. But, I'm still moving forward, still striving to do a good job and striving to not be too hard on myself when I fail. Sometimes I may do things badly. Maybe that's for the best?

But, (there's always a but, isn't there?) there's another volunteer that I'm working with who is doing her job badly. She's way over-committed and misses about half of the meetings and can't be relied upon to do any planning or preparation. I have to admit, it's very frustrating to work with her as her failures make so much more work for the rest of us; and, I get frustrated at my own frustration because I know my own failures are probably causing the same sort of frustrations for other members of the organization.

So the question is: When you volunteer for a ministry, should you only do so if you can do the job well? Is doing the best that you can, even if it's not up to standards, good enough? If you can't do a job well, should you step aside and make room for someone else to step up who can do a better job? What if there isn't anyone else?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My little girl is 2!

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In some ways it's hard to believe that my little baby is now a 2-year-old. But, her constant babble (especially during mass) and clear opinions and emerging speech and ability to climb absolutely everything doesn't allow that feeling to last for long.

Since her birthday is so close to Christmas, we kept her birthday very low key.

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We had a cupcake celebration with my parents at home and then we drove to Eric's parent's house for New Year's weekend and had another small celebration there with her triplet cousins (see the photo at the top of the post).

She loved her gifts, a stroller and bottles for her baby doll and some pots and pans for our play kitchen as well as blue checked apron.

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I don't know if my kids will always agree, but that New Year's weekend was the perfect way to celebrate a birthday. We spent time with family, the weather was gorgeous and the kids spent almost all day outside, and we had absolutely nothing on our agenda other than to just be and enjoy each other. Now, that's the life!

Roll over the next photo with your mouse to experience some of the joy of that weekend.

What could possibly be better than that?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My favorite books in 2011

Thanks to my kindle, I read a lot of books in 2011. Well... at least more than in previous years of recent memory though maybe not an impressive number compared to other avid readers. Many of these books were read while waiting: in car line picking up the kids from school, at railroad crossings, for water/soups/sauces to boil, while I was brushing my teeth, or any other time that I could sneak in a quick peak at my favorite e-reader. Here are some of my favorites from the past year:

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brad Pitre - I read The Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn several years ago and found his explanations of the Eucharist fascinating and my experience of the mass has been enriched ever since. This book covers a bit of the information in Hahn's book but expands upon it and adds so much more of the historical context. I really need to reread it two or three more times to have any hope of retaining a fraction of the fascinating correlations between the New Testament Eucharist and practices and beliefs of Old Testament Jews. Highly recommend!

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger - Peace Like a River is my favorite novel of this year and I even gave it as a Christmas gift to a family member. I mentioned it already in a 7 Quick Takes Friday post, but I love it so much that I had to mention it again. It's a fantastic tale of faith, adventure, sacrificial love and miracles and is so beautifully written. It's one of the best of the best!

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke - I rarely read a book that has not been recommended by someone in whom I have some level of trust in his or her taste in books. I found this book, however, because the kindle edition was on sale for super cheap for one day only. The reviews intrigued me and described the book as a mix of historical fiction, literary fiction and fantasy. It's a story of two English magicians who are trying to revive the lost art of English magic during the turmoil of the time of the Napoleonic wars. It's a very long book (don't skip the footnotes, they are a must!) but was well worth my time.

Heart of Virtue by Donald DeMarco - After a fascinating homily by one of my parish priests, I realized that I understood very little about virtues, what they are and how to attain them. In a search for a good book on virtues from a Catholic perspective, I browsed the websites of several Catholic publishers until I found Heart of Virtue published by Ignatius Press. It was exactly what I was looking for! The book explores 28 virtues, beginning with an example of the virtue in action from history (both secular and religious) or literature and following with an in depth explanation of the virtue. I plan to reread this book as part of my Lenten practices this year.

Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C.S. Lewis - Arwen's recommendation at Faith and Family Live! convinced me to give these books from C.S. Lewis' space trilogy a try. They were completely unknown to me, though I've enjoyed a number of Lewis' other works. The books were not available at either my public library or on kindle, but I was able to purchase paperback editions on amazon. These novels were written to make you think. And think. And think. I'm waiting patiently for Eric to finish Out of the Silent Planet right now and when he does I'm anticipating some deep discussions of the nature of sin, angels, God's relationship with His fallen creation and what might have been if sin had never entered our world. I plan to complete the reading of this trilogy in 2012.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy - Over the past year or so, I've seen The Moviegoer recommended on a number of Catholic blogs. It's an intriguing book with a unique and troubled main character who can't ignore a deep yearning inside himself to pursue "the search". The message of the book is very subtle and while reading it I was often reminded of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, another complex and subtle work of Catholic fiction.

The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall - We love the Penderwicks! I read this third installment of the series several months ago and have been enjoying reading the first two books aloud to Elizabeth (age 7) this school year. The tales of the four Penderwick sisters are touching and fun and I've loved being able to share them with my daughter.

Unplanned by Abby Johnson - Anyone who call themselves pro-life would benefit from reading this book. Abby's story shows the power of love in the conversion of hearts and gave me great hope for the future and the defense of the unborn. It's unique perspective also helps the reader understand why pro-abortion proponents believe what the do. It can only help the pro-life movement if we understand where the other side is coming from; but, ultimately the movement will only be successful if hearts are converted and that can only happen through love and the gift of God's grace.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens - Yes, Dickens is long winded and wordy and it's a definite time commitment to read one of his novels. But, I love Dickens. His plots are intriguing, the characters are varied, thought-provoking and memorable and his themes are timeless. Little Dorrit is an intriguing tale and a sweet love story. I also particularly enjoyed the BBC mini-series adaptation.

Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen - This young adult novel is sweet and endearing. While light-hearted and fun, it also has some important messages about what makes a person worthy of our love, how we shouldn't judge our neighbors, and the inherent value of the mentally disabled. This is a fantastic story for a teen or tween (or her mother) and the movie "Flipped" is just as good. 

What are your favorite reads of 2011? I'm always looking for more good books to add to my "To Read" list!